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But what about the other seven percent—my cherished refuge of old?

Far from the sanctuary or common-wealth that one might expect, our state forests have 962 permitted wells with projections of another 3,000 by 2040. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources leased 74,000 acres of state forests to the gas industry in 2008, then recommended a halt to the practice, but the Governor ordered that another 80,000 acres be leased. The total state forest area potentially subject to gas development is nearly 700,000 acres—a third of the total. 

Furthermore, roads to the wells, and the water withdrawn from streams, plus the pollution that escapes, all affect vast areas beyond what’s immediately under lease. “Fragmentation” of wildlife habitat and open space results from chopping previously protected acreage into isolated pieces—as if you dissected all the rooms of your house and moved each to a separate outdoor shed and still tried to call it a “house.” Furthermore, income from the gas leases was intended, by law, to go to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, but that money has been hijacked for the general fund, leaving our dedicated public land stewards handicapped to deal with the inevitable problems that result. 

Seeking to fix what it can of this badly broken system, the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation has filed suit against the governor. The non-profit group claims violations of Article 1, Section 27 of the State Constitution. With great fanfare, in 1971 this edict guaranteed that “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment… As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.” The governor is responsible to uphold those rights. 

It will be difficult to undo the damage of the past, but the foundation reasonably argues that the expansion of poorly regulated public land leasing should be stopped, and that revenues should be returned to the agency that’s stuck with the problems now being created.

Have we learned anything from the cutting of virtually all of Penn’s Woods? From the unreclaimed strip mines that marred our mountains and required us all to pay the price? The record of fracking, so far, says that we haven’t. But the slow wheels of justice will tell if the Constitution requires otherwise. 

If Pennsylvanians have a birthright to the Sylvania that our benevolent founder so perceptively named, then our state forests should not just be drilling pads for the fracking of our future. 

Tim Palmer is the author of Rivers of Pennsylvania and Youghiogheny: Appalachian River, plus twenty other books. He grew up in western Pennsylvania and worked for ten years as a land use planner in Lycoming County, where fracking is now widespread.

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