Thursday, November 11, 2010

Drilling is Not Compatible With Multiple-Use State Forest Mandates

Allegheny National Forest (Allegheny Defense Project)

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) manages more than 785,000 acres of state forest. These are lands that are managed for multiple uses including timber harvest, recreational activities, conservation and, if the strategic plan is adopted, gas drilling.

Problem is, industrialized gas drilling isn’t compatible with other forest uses. Just ask Bill Belitskus, president of the board for the Allegheny Defense Project. The most visible impact of drilling, he says, is the explosion of access roads and pipeline right-of-ways criss-crossing the forested hillsides.

Drilling relies on a massive road system to bring machinery, rig parts and water to the site, and a system of pipelines for getting gas to market. Each of those road cuts and right-of-ways slices the forest into smaller and smaller fragments.

Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest is home to 12,000 - 15,000 shallow gas wells, and companies are now applying for Marcellus permits. The larger pads and wider roads, built to accommodate heavier trucks, will only exacerbate the fragmentation, Belitskus said.

Belitskus tallied up the acreage used by drilling at one site: 5 acres for the pad, a 10-acre fresh-water impoundment, a 1 – 2 acre frack pit and land for the access roads adds up close to 20 acres. Given the industry’s projection of 30,000 new wells in PA by 2020, he worries the disruption on the landscape will be significant and long term.

“Right now they’re drilling anchor wells,” Belitskus said. This is when a company drills a single well on a unit and then packs up their gear and heads to another unit to drill a well.

The strategy, Belitskus explained, is to get a hole in the ground and then hold the leases “by production” until they can get back to complete their drilling. That might take ten years, and the companies don’t have to do any remediation until they finish drilling activities.

How does drilling impact other forest uses? Stormwater runoff from road and well pad construction adds sediments to trout streams. Lowered oxygen levels and increased pollutant levels can reduce fish populations and, in the case of sensitive species, kill them outright.

from Allegheny Defense Project
Road and pipeline right-of-ways provide corridors for invasive species that change the character of the forests and affect timber harvest, sugaring and mast production for wildlife. Birds and other species that require large areas of continuous forested land are put at risk.

And then there’s recreation. Shellie Northrup, an avid hiker and member of two trail associations, says hikers report coming across flaring wells, piles of tree trunks blocking trails, and well pads that obliterate paths. Drilling affect the aesthetics of an afternoon hike, and presents a safety hazard when sharing public lands used for recreation. 

Read more about Allegheny Defense Project here. You can read a longer article from the print edition of Broader View Weekly here in a couple weeks.


  1. I can't believe I am reading about a pro-Wilderness organization touting multiple use. There is nothing more anti-multiple use than Wilderness designation.

  2. You kinda lost me, Mike. National Forests have long been "multiple-use" areas. I'm not seeing in the Allegheny forest or other state forests about "wilderness" designation. And I don't think it is unusual for a group to promote wilderness designation in one area (where appropriate) and try to defend recreation as one of the many uses in a state forest somewhere else.

  3. To be fair, though:

    1) The word "if" is not really the accurate descriptor for the situation in NY — as in New Yorkers will have gas drilling in their state forests *if* this plan is approved. Public land leasing and oil and gas drilling in NYS have been ongoing since the beginning. It's part of the mix in multiple use, along with cutting timber. Activists can put an end to these offensive uses *if* they succeed in changing the status quo.

    2) In much of PA's ANF, private parties own the underlying oil and gas, not the government. At any time, even now, the public could purchase these rights, even forcing the sale with the power of eminent domain. But it would cost money.

    3) Much past ANF drilling (a fair bit of which is oil, not gas) has been technologically and geologically driven by the need for a large number of closely spaced wells draining small areas. That's probably what's depicted in the picture you included.

    But, if shale gas proponents are to be believed, this brand of resource extraction could actually have less surface impact for the overall amount of acreage drained.