As part of a five-day, multi-state educational tour, 18 journalists from Boston to Colorado to Texas visited the Allegheny National Forest last week.
The journalists, chosen through a competitive application process for the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources (IJNR) Shale Country tour, listened to presentations by U.S. Forest Service oil and gas program and ecosystems personnel, as well as representatives from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), and Friends of Allegheny Wilderness (FAW).
During the ANF stop, the journalists learned about what makes oil and gas development on the forest different from other places.
Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry
David Unger, a staff writer with the Christian Science Monitor (left), listens and Peter Green, a reporter with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, takes notes, as Jeff Prowant, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Tiadaghton State Forest District Manager (right), speaks during a high-level journalists meeting Wednesday at the Allegheny National Forest office in Conewango Township.
"The Allegheny National Forest has a long-standing reputation of being a working forest, even before it was designated a national forest," Ecosystems Staff Officer Nadine Pollock said. "Timbering, oil and gas are the fabric that we live by."
The way the forest was put together made it different from other public lands.
"As the ANF lands were acquired, the surface lands were acquired... there was not, at that time, a focus on acquiring the subsurface," Pollock said.
About 93 percent of the subsurface rights are in private hands, according to ANF Oil, Gas and Minerals Program Manager Paul Weese.
The private ownership, combined with more than 150 years of mineral development history means the ANF is much more heavily drilled than other public lands. "There are an estimated 12,000 active wells on the Allegheny," Weese said. In 2007 alone, there were applications for 1,300 wells on the forest.
Stephanie Ogburn, a reporter with North Colorado Public Radio, asked if the ANF could "put any stipulations" on development.
"Operators still have to provide us with advance notice," Weese said. "We can negotiate with the developer."
While the ANF must provide reasonable access to privately held subsurface property, the agency can suggest measures that will mitigate the impacts to sensitive areas.
In many ways, the ANF is like any private landowner who does not own the subsurface rights. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection provides the regulatory services on the forest.
Peter Green, a reporter with Bloomberg BusinessWeek of New York, asked about "the deleterious effect on wildlife" of access roads breaking up the forest.
"When will these forests basically become parks of trees?" he asked.
While roads do not represent much of a threat for white-tailed deer, "it's a long way for a salamander to go across 40 feet of right-of-way in the middle of July," said DCNR Forest District Manager Jeff Prowant, who works on the Tiadaghton State Forest in Waterville.
"It sounds like you have very little legal power," Joanna Richards, reporter/producer with WCPN/Ideastream of Cleveland, Ohio, said. "To what extent do negotiations rely on their good will?"
"If it's an archaeological concern we have some teeth," Oil/Gas/Minerals Team Leader Mitch Dysinger said.
"We basically have the Threatened and Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act to mitigate or avoid impacts," Weese said.
The situation is very different on state forest land - most of which is owned above and below by the state.
The DCNR contracts can be upwards of 70 pages long. "We utilize the contract," Prowant said.
In one case, a developer had to repave a particular road four times in three months. Any invasive species that are present on land disturbed by the developer that were not there before must be removed by the developer.
"Once it's there, how are you refurbishing the well pad?" Lana Straub, a freelance journalist/producer for West Texas Public Radio, asked. "How's the land quality?"
"We make them do things on state forest land that they absolutely don't want to do," Teddy Borawski, DCNR minerals division chief, said. "It's not mitigation. It's basically reclamation."
He said the land would not be recognizable as a well-pad after removal, adding, "Our lease affords us a protection."
The ANF can exercise similar power in areas where it owns both the surface and the subsurface.
Much of that area is already off-limits to drilling and mining.
Kirk Johnson of FAW spoke about efforts to have more land designated as wilderness area.
"The Wilderness Act precludes drilling on wilderness areas," he said. About 9,000 ANF acres are designated wilderness - less than two percent. Johnson said the national forest average is about 18 percent.
"Our view is that we have some work to do to raise the bar on the Allegheny," he said. "With our Citizens' Wilderness Proposal we've identified 50,000 additional acres that could be designated wilderness."
FAW is not trying to impose its ideas through the legal system. "We're not into the litigation," Johnson said. "We want to pursue the acquisition" of subsurface rights.
Due to the weather Wednesday, plans to hold the gathering at Rimrock or Kinzua Beach were scrapped and the information was presented at the ANF office in North Warren.
After an hour and a half, the journalists packed up and boarded their bus. Their next destination was a Seneca Resources well pad. The tour included stops in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York.
"The intent of this was educational," Weese said. The journalists will have some background to work from when they are required to write deadline stories about issues they were exposed to on the tour.
The organizers of the tour, IJNR CEO Dave Spratt and Director of Programs Adam Hinterthuer, had visited the ANF in advance of the tour and included it as a stop in order to help the journalists understand how the ANF fits into the oil and gas extraction situation.
"Our mission here at IJNR is to help journalists who cover the environment and natural resources better understand the work that they do... get journalists out from their newsroom and into the field where they can see important stories unfolding for themselves," Spratt said. "At this point in time with the global energy situation and the economy the way it is, extraction of oil and natural gas have really moved to the front of the line..."
"That's why we are in Pennsylvania and headed for New York and Ohio," he said. To, "help these guys understand that it's more than either a destroyer of the planet or the savior of our economy. It's complicated."
"This visit was excellent and extremely worthwhile," Pollock said. "Every opportunity we have to share not only oil, gas and mineral information, but all natural resource management policies and practices with media representatives is valuable."
"It was really valuable," Public Affairs Specialist Jane Cliff out of the U.S. Forest Service Eastern Region office in Milwaukee said. "How often do you get this opportunity... such a diverse group. Any time you get a room full of people with different ideas and different experiences together, the information exchange is invaluable."