Sunday, December 6, 2009

Fragmenting the Agricultural Landscape one Well at a Time

For most of the farmers in our area - upstate NY perched atop the Marcellus - oil and gas leases have been part of the business since their grandfathers pounded in the first fenceposts. But with a huge reservoir of natural gas beneath their hayfields and forests, and bonus payments heading north of $5500/acre, leasing has become the number one rural land-use issue says Brett Chedzoy, a regional forester with Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Chedzoy, who is also a farmer, speaks from experience. His  livestock operations have been interrupted not once, but twice for  gas pipeline construction projects. Without proper lease protections, farm and forest owners face potential losses in terms of timber, wildlife habitat and other property uses, he says.

If a gas company wants to use your land for a drilling pad or as a right-of-way for a pipeline, they ought to pay fair value for all timber removed from your land, Chedzoy says. Even young successional forests have value. An 8-inch tree may have current value only as firewood, but if left for another 50 years it would have significant value as a saw log.

The problem, Chedzoy says, is that too often energy companies use bulldozers to clear land. That leaves downed trees mixed with stones and debris - unacceptable to a mill or to someone using a chainsaw. Instead, trees should be cut by an experienced logging crew and stacked in an accessible location

As with fields, forest owners need to protect their topsoil, restore drainages, and control erosion. Once construction is completed, the soil needs to be de-compacted. Then the topsoil should be replaced and – especially if the area will be maintained by brush-hogging – make sure that the rocks and stones are picked out. Unfortunately, some farmers say that even when these items are outlined in their leases, the gas companies are not following their directives.

Pipeline Right-of-Ways

Access roads and well-pads are not the only threat to agriculture. According to Chedzoy pipeline right-of-ways (ROWs) are the number-one entry point for invasive species. Once you take out the trees, you create an “edge” – an opening preferred by such invasive species as European buckthorn, multifloral rose, privet, several Asian species of honeysuckle, burning bush, Japanese barberry, autumn olive, swallowwort, Oriental bittersweet, and garlic mustard.

The problem with invasive species is that they interfere with native plants and degrade the wildlife habitat. Take buckthorn, for example. It displaces other berry-producing shrubs such as Viburnums and blackberries. and the buckthorn fruit isn't very nutritious for the animals; it causes them to vomit the fruit without digesting any nutrients. This is great for buckthorn dispersal, but not very beneficial for the wildlife.

Invasive plants also affect the quality of the forest. The more competitive invasive plants may shade or crowd out the existing seedlings and saplings, changing the character of the woods. Or, like garlic mustard, they may produce chemicals that inhibit seed germination.

Pipeline right-of-ways also create other problems for forest owners. Landowners needing access to their forests for timber harvest will want to make sure there are permanent crossings for skidders and other heavy equipment. Otherwise forest owners wanting to sell a few trees may find themselves required to provide a “timber bridge”.

Trespass liability has become an issue as well. Many forest owners have complained that pipeline ROWs become conduits for ATV and snowmobile traffic.

Cumulative impacts

David Behm, NY Ag and Markets Farmland Protection Program Manager, is concerned about preserving agricultural land for future generations. He wonders whether conservation easements will be strong enough to protect farmland in the face of the anticipated natural gas rush.

A conservation easement is a legal document that is written in the form of a deed. It permanently restricts the future development of a piece of property for the purpose of preserving or maintaining the scenic, open, historic, agricultural, or natural condition, character or significance of that property. And, Behm explains, it can be modified to allow a well.

Thing is, while a single well on a farm doesn’t seem like a huge impact, Behm is concerned about the cumulative impacts of gas development on a given agricultural landscape over time. He believes that access roads to well sites will fragment the agricultural land. 

"Anytime there’s a road dividing a field, agricultural land is at risk," Behm says. He is particularly concerned about access roads that cut off a couple acres from a larger field – those smaller pieces are at risk for development, Behm says. You can read more about forest and ag-land issues here.

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