Cindy Dunn, Director of the Bureau of Recreation and Conservation, Dept. Secretary of the DCNR

The view from Cindy Dunn’s office on a corner of the seventh floor of the Rachel Carson Office Building in downtown Harrisburg is quite different from the northern highlands that overlay the shale. Outside the office of the Deputy Secretary of the DCNR there is a forest of buildings and humanity, rather than one of trees and quaint rural hamlets. In the distance, despite the haze, there is the plume of a distant but world-famous power plant:  The Three Mile Island Nuclear Station. Located in the middle of the Susquehanna River, the plant infamous for a near meltdown of Unit 2 on March 28, 1979.  Yet it is here, amid the headquarters of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth in Harrisburg’s urban forest, that the rights of the Big Woods are voiced, if they are anywhere.

“Look at the nuclear industry and the way they got shut out by the public for doing it wrong,” Dunn gestures toward the south window of her office. “Not doing it right did not help their industry. There they sit, frozen in time.” Dunn is hopeful that a conscientious industry will aid the DCNR’s mission of conservation in the current drilling boom. But while the potential for catastrophe inherent with natural gas is lower than for nuclear power, there is still reason for concern over the ecological impacts of such massive operations. “Pennsylvania is famous for acting almost like a third-world country when it comes to putting out itself and its resources,” Dunn muses.

DCNR’s charge to conserve natural resources in this is complicated by a maze of legal issues concerning severed mineral rights. “To really conserve land, we have to buy it twice.” Dunn says. “We’ve got to buy the land, and then we have to buy the mineral rights. We spent a couple million dollars to get the mineral rights under the Hammersley Wilderness area…and thank God we got them a couple years ago.” But if the gas industry succeeds in acquiring “conservation pooling” as concession to the severance tax issue, the private landowner will face severed mineral rights issues in the not-too distant future. “That’s essentially an eminent domain issue,” Dunn explained, “and it’s equally legitimate to say that taking someone’s mineral rights is taking their right to make decisions. That’s eminent domain.”

The primary concern of the DCNR is to ensure conservation of the land that the department has been charged to protect. “One of the dilemmas… is that we have a lot of forest roads,” Dunn notes. “In fact we have an outrageous number of forest roads, which is a real issue of its own.” These existing roads, crisscrossing the forest and causing fragmentation of habitat for animals and plants, form an odd paradox. “We’re trying to get the well pads adjacent to roads,” Dunn explains, “but the policy has been to buffer the view of these wells.” Stuck between decreasing the environmental impact or limiting the negative social and visual impact, the DCNR has no easy choice.  “The policy has been to shield the view of these wells because we are trying to create a positive recreation experience,” she explains.

Catch 22: Reduce enviromental impact, or visually impair the rural Northern Tier with a highly industrialized process? A well about to fracked near Mainsburg just off Route 6 illustrates the later.

Other decision makers in Harrisburg have made unmistakable moves to establish their own agenda for lands entrusted to the public ownership.  Governor Edward Rendell in 2009 mandated that $60 million dollars be generated for the general fund from leasing public lands to the gas industry. “The drilling on state land was used to fill gaps in the budget,” Dunn acknowledges, but now as the state agencies begin to recover from the initial wave of activity, “the first stage is secure the management of the public land, and so we’ve gotten the governor’s support to have a moratorium on more drilling on state land.” The moratorium, however, is not guaranteed, because it is not law; just the verbal agreement of a governor who has less than a year remaining in office, and whose successor, Tom Corbett, is seen by many environmentalists as pro-drilling.

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Ultimately, the voters’ decisions in the fall 2010 elections will determine whether the Marcellus Shale Natural Gas play will be Pennsylvania’s first responsibly-handled extractive industry boom, or just another bout with disaster.  To look at the issues from a political angle, I turn my attention back to Tioga County, the 68th Legislative District and the 25th Senatorial District for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Tioga County is represented in the General Assembly by Matt Baker (R) and in the Senate by Joe Scarnati (R), President Pro Tempore.  Unable to secure any interviews or statements with Scarnati or Baker, I spoke to a Tioga County candidate who challenged Baker unsuccessfully for his seat in the General Assembly.

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“We just had it [our well] tested and it came out with flying colors, so when the gas industry screws it up we’ll have a legal leg to stand on.” One simple word speaks volumes about John Kesich as we sit down to lunch at the Native Bagel, a small café within view of the courthouse in Wellsboro. “When,” not “if” the gas industry contaminates their water, he says. “I’m not exactly an optimist … especially not when it comes to this industry.”

Kesich, a resident of north-eastern Tioga County and Green Party member, holds 55.5 acres of land, but so long as he has a choice, the only well there will ever be on his land is the one he and his wife Emily drink their water from. Kesich, a staunch opponent of drilling on his own land, is not just opposed merely because of potential well contamination or congested roads. “The rock bottom question is, do you believe in global warming?” Kesich asks me. “If you do, then the next question is, does this project, talking about the whole [Marcellus Shale] play, make sense from that point of view?” Half a block away, trucks and equipment growl their way into the downtown from State Route 287 and U.S. Route 6, an ever-present reminder of the beehive of activity this area has become. “We’re talking about fossil methane here. We are burning fossil fuels and fossil diesel to get at this stuff. So what impact does that have, in terms of the global climate? And of course,” Kesich notes, “If you’re someone who denies this, who thinks that it’s all some conspiracy cooked up by Al Gore, then that’s not a problem.”

Tioga County Resident John Kesich with then-Governor Ed Rendell during a visit to Wellsboro. (Photo Credit:Emily Rizzo)

A persistently concerned and involved citizen in local affairs, Kesich is a regular attendee of the county commissioners’ meetings. “I guess I’m a masochist,” he jokes a bit sheepishly. But when it comes to the issue of the Marcellus Shale, he’s not laughing anymore. Content with the county commissioners’ responses to questions about the Marcellus Shale, Kesich was satisfied that they believed their water is too important to take risks with. At the same time, he also took to heart their other piece of advice: Citizens should educate themselves on the matter.  “I was naïve enough to believe that this is actually something they are going to worry about,” he reflects.

On March 26, 2009 in Ithaca, New York, Kesich attended a conference hosted in a high school cafeteria by Shaleshock, a concerned citizens’ alliance aimed at educating the public about the Marcellus Shale. “It was like the scales fell from my eyes. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.” Among the presentations, Barbara Arrindell, a member of Damascus Concerned Citizens’ group, presented issues affecting other shale gas plays. Presenting cases from gas fields around the country, such as the Barnett Shale in Texas and the Fayetteville in Louisiana, “She was showing livestock being poisoned…she was raising concerns about things that I had no idea of.”

Eyes wide open now and searching the internet and the newspapers for information, Kesich became alarmed by what he found. After pursuing county commissioners, and elected state officials such as Senator Scarnati and Representative Baker, Kesich was unsatisfied with the bureaucracy and lack of commitment he saw in their responses, so he took his concern to the next level.

Against the numbers, and admittedly without a real viable chance, Kesich ran against incumbent State Rep. Baker in the 2010 elections. Acknowledging that his bid was a long shot, Kesich was more concerned with drawing attention to the current state of political affairs and encouraging individuals to take an active role in their community. While Kesich did receive about 174 write-in votes altogether during the primary elections, Baker received the nomination from both parties, including about 500 Democratic write-in votes in addition to those votes from his own party. “Those numbers should tell you that I don’t stand a chance, but I think it’s nonetheless important that somebody be there, so the people who are unhappy with him and what he’s doing have the chance to say ‘No.’”

Failing to receive a write-in nomination, Kesich opted not to attempt to be recognized on the Green ballot, but instead aimed for a write-in in the General Election in November, in which he only garnered a few votes.

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