The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) is assisting an investigation by the federal National Park Service (NPS) to determine whether any Marcellus Shale natural gas wells on state forest land were improperly approved by the state.

The NPS is trying to determine if any of 175 gas wells are on land the DCNR purchased with money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which was created in 1964 as part of the Land and Water Conservation Act. The NPS, an operating unit of the Interior Department, administers the LWCF.

“The string that goes along with receiving funding under LWCF is that the land acquired has to be opened for recreational opportunities in perpetuity,” NPS spokesman Phil Sheridan told NGI’s Shale Daily on Tuesday. “If you begin to do other types of activities…including using it for gas extraction…you would have to then apply for conversion.”

Under the terms of conversion, the DCNR would first need permission from the NPS to use the property in question for nonrecreational uses. The state must then buy an equal amount of land elsewhere to compensate for the loss of recreational land, and must use any revenue from leases or royalties toward either purchasing conversion property, conservation or recreation purposes.

“It’s a straightforward process,” Sheridan said. “But the state does have to create recreational opportunities elsewhere if it asks for a conversion and we approve it.”

Sheridan said the DCNR has gone through the conversion process with the NPS before, but never since the rise of the Marcellus Shale or for drilling purposes. But he added there was a possibility the DCNR had not run afoul of the LWCF’s rules.

“The first step is to find out what’s out there,” Sheridan said. “It’s certainly conceivable that none of these proposed [or active drilling] sites are actually within the LWCF area. They could be on adjacent land. If it’s not in that LWCF footprint, then we wouldn’t have any authority in it, even if it’s in the same state park.”

In an effort to try and clear up the issue quickly, the DCNR has reportedly asked the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) to provide maps showing where the 175 permitted or planned gas wells are located.

DCNR Secretary Richard Allan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he was confident that the department was in compliance with LWCF guidelines.

“We have not identified any basis for asserting that Marcellus Shale gas extraction does not satisfy the National Park Service’s substantive requirements for such extraction,” Allan said. “We are open to meeting with the park service to talk about this issue.”

DEP spokeswoman Katy Gresh confirmed that the DCNR had asked for the maps and for assistance, and emphasized that any gas well permits issued by the DEP were still valid.

“They have contacted us,” Gresh told NGI’s Shale Daily on Tuesday. “We are always working with our sister agencies to [provide] whatever help we can with requests they receive from the federal government or elsewhere.”

In February Republican Gov. Tom Corbett opened Pennsylvania’s parks and forests to leasing for natural gas development, reversing former Gov. Ed Rendell’s executive order banning leases on the 800,000 acres managed by the DCNR (see Shale Daily, Feb. 23; Oct. 27, 2010).

According to the DCNR, approximately 1.5 million acres of state forest and 60 state parks sit atop the Marcellus Shale formation.

The DCNR announced in August 2010 that 700,000 acres of state forest were either under lease of available for development by private owners, but said another 702,500 acres were off limits to leasing because they were in ecologically sensitive areas (see Daily GPI, Aug. 16, 2010).