Energy development in Pennsylvania, including natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, could transform the state's forests and impact several thousand acres of habitat, The Nature Conservancy said in a new study.

"We can no longer protect nature without thinking about energy development," said Nels Johnson, deputy director of the Conservancy's Pennsylvania chapter and the study's lead author.

A team of scientists spent nearly a year analyzing the state's energy development and future possible impacts. According to an analysis of aerial photographs, about 3,500 acres of forest have been cleared and an estimated 8,500 additional acres of habitat degraded because of the energy development in recent years.

The study considered the types of energy development most likely to alter Pennsylvania's landscape: natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation, wind energy, wood biomass and electric and gas transmission. The report then documented the possible impacts on areas of high conservation value.

In the Marcellus play, "about 1,800 Marcellus natural gas wells have already been drilled in Pennsylvania, and as many as 60,000 more could be developed by 2030 if development trends continue," the report noted. By the end of this year, 500 wind turbines will be generating energy on the Allegheny Front and Appalachian ridges, and between 750 and 2,900 more could be built by 2030, depending on the state's renewable energy goals.

Early next year the Conservancy plans to release additional findings that are focused on wood biomass and electric and gas transmission, "but already, the cumulative impacts of new energy development in Pennsylvania are alarmingly clear."

Among its findings the report said:

For every acre of development in Pennsylvania's forests, several additional acres of habitat for plants and animals are lost to the noise, light, invasive species and other ecological changes that can accompany remote developments, the report noted. "Forests can be fragmented by roads, gas well pads and turbines, creating more of the forest edges where these impacts occur."

Audubon Pennsylvania provided data and staff to help The Nature Conservancy produce the report, said Audubon Executive Director Phil Wallis.

"Pennsylvania's deep forests provide breeding habitat for many songbirds that depend upon the health of Penn's Woods, including the scarlet tanager, wood thrush and black-throated blue warbler," Wallis said. "This analysis gives us a glimpse of how substantial the loss of our forests may be as a result of new energy development activities. We need to actively work to maintain the resilience and health of our wild forests at the same time that we find new energy solutions for our nation."

Pennsylvania's outdoor recreation and timber industries also are dependent on the health of the state's forests, while impacts to headwater streams as a result of development could extend many miles downstream, noted the report.

Nature Conservancy staff members plan to share their findings with industry leaders, policymakers, community organizations and landowners with the intent of collaborating about the state's energy future.

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