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Environmental Groups Urge PA to Better Protect Forests From Oil/Gas Extraction

As the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) works to update its policies for managing state forest land, environmental groups are pushing for more public participation, limited access to state-owned land and more conservation when it comes to natural gas development.

In a letter sent last week to State Forester Daniel Devlin, the Save the Loyalsock Coalition urged the agency to bulk-up its protections against natural gas extraction in state forests. Among the coalition's members are PennFuture, the FracTracker Alliance and the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club. The state has been working to finalize an update to its State Forest Resource Management Plan (SFRMP), a document used to plan, coordinate and communicate its management of the state forest system.

While the coalition lauded parts of a draft plan and some of DCNR's efforts to conserve the forest to date, the letter said more needs to be done to improve it and protect the state's natural resources.

"The final SFRMP should emphasize the department's efforts to conserve and maintain Pennsylvania's state forest resources," the letter said. "Further, for any actions where the department plans to allow for the economic development of these resources, it should clearly and expressly explain how the proposed development will prevent material damage to, and preserve the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the trust principal," added the letter, pulling from Article I, Section 27 of the state constitution. The amendment has been cited more by environmentalists since it was included in a landmark state Supreme Court ruling that gave localities more say in oil and gas development across the state (see Shale Daily, Nov. 30, 2015; Dec. 27, 2013).

Specifically, the coalition said DCNR should restrict access to state forest lands for purposes of oil and gas extraction to the extent permitted by law. "Although the department may not be legally entitled to prevent all surface access to state forest land, it should use its considerable powers to prevent surface development of state forest land for oil and gas extraction whenever legally permissible," the letter said, noting that shale gas producers, in some instances can access subsurface resources from adjacent lots not owned by the state.

The coalition said that in order to "adequately evaluate" the effect of oil and gas development on state lands, DCNR should institute a version of an environmental impact analysis process similar to the one used under the National Environmental Policy Act. Such a process, the letter said, would "allow for more public participation and ensure that all environmental impacts of a proposed action are accounted for and evaluated."

DCNR's Bureau of Forestry manages 2.2 million acres of state forest, of which 1.5 million acres are prospective for the Marcellus Shale. About 700,000 acres have already been leased for natural gas development.The coalition was formed in 2012 to better protect the Clarence Moore Lands of the state's Loyalsock Forest from natural gas development.

The SFRMP public comment period ended over the weekend. DCNR officials said the agency already has adequate measures in place for public participation and added that comments submitted on the SFRMP would be evaluated. The plan is expected to be finalized later this year.

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