William Penn named our state Sylvania for its unbroken woodlands. Every Pennsylvanian learns this as a kid. But just seven percent of our terrain of 29 million acres exists as state forests or parks—a remnant of nature where the forests were intended to stay, and where public, rather than private use, was to prevail. At least that was the idea at their founding, and in careful management up until recent years.
Growing up near Pittsburgh, I found welcome refuge in the state forests and parks. The land around me had otherwise been built up, plowed over, or blasted out for strip mines. Over time, I discovered that many other Pennsylvanians found this refuge as well; we said we were “going to the mountains,” but we really meant that we were going to the state forests or parks—public land owned by us all. A highlight of these trips was Cook Forest, where I soon realized that the big trees covered only a few dozen acres spared from a once-seamless expanse of cathedral groves that had systematically been clearcut across Pennsylvania’s 300-mile length. Considering Cook Forest’s popularity, drawing people from three states just to see a few acres of big trees, it seemed unconscionable that so little had been set aside. How could our forefathers have been so short-sighted?
Then the era of strip mining was upon us, and after the invoices piled up for hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to pay for the problems and pollution that poorly regulated mining had created, it seemed inconceivable that we could have allowed so much to be ruined in a brief cycle of boom and bust. We learned that it was manifestly more difficult to fix a landscape once it had been broken than it was to care for it properly in the first place. And we learned to be more careful about the rapid liquidation of natural wealth. Or did we?
Much of the state is underlain by Marcellus shale—heavily tapped today for natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking“—the pressure-pumping of water, a stew of chemicals and sand into deep underground cavities to fracture rock strata. This allows gas supplies—along with the toxic water that’s pumped in—to be extracted.
The process has been criticized for its contamination of drinking-water wells, 24-7 noise, thousands of miles of new roads scraped out of our forests and fields, caravans of trucks in what had been Penn’s Wood’s most remote enclaves, and dependence on “water buffaloes.” These bulky front-yard tanks filled by trucks are now used to replace once-pristine well-water, which had been the health and pride of rural residents. Now they drink out of a plastic tank, like so many cattle stranded in a hot pasture. Lease agreements with the gas industry often bar the people affected by this plight from complaining.
In a shocking affront to public respect and disclosure, the industry refuses to tell even our state regulatory agencies the names of the chemicals that can become unwelcome cocktails in the water that people drink. All this has become business-as-usual across much of the Commonwealth’s 93 percent that’s mostly private land.
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