Bay Journal

PA budget slashes conservation programs, opens state forests to drilling

  • By Staff and Wire Reports on October 01, 2009

Pennsylvania, the last state in the nation to adopt a budget, appears to have produced one with sharp cuts to conservation programs and opens tens of thousands of acres of state forests to drilling.

Legislators and Gov. Ed Rendell reached the compromise Sept. 18, although details were still being worked out.

State environmental agencies appeared headed for steep cuts. Funding for numerous conservation programs were also in line for sharp cuts or elimination, many of which were important for Bay-related programs, including funding for conservation districts, incentive programs for farmers and other water programs.

"We are well aware of the economic and budget problems faced by the commonwealth," wrote Matt Ehrhart, Pennsylvania executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in a Sept. 21 letter to Rendell and members of the General Assembly.

"However, we believe the budget agreement details announced so far mean a dramatic step backward in Pennsylvania's efforts to restore our environment and to meet federal and state mandates to improve water quality," he wrote.

At the same time, the budget deal drops the governor's support for an extraction tax to share some of the profits from the Marcellus Shale exploration. Pennsylvania is one of the biggest natural-gas producing states-if not the biggest-that does not tax methane drawn from beneath its ground.

Exploration companies are opposed to a tax, saying it will hurt the expansion of an industry that could create tens of thousands of new jobs across the state.

Instead of the tax, the state plans to raise money by leasing an additional 90,000 acres of state forest land for more drilling.

"The integrity of our publicly owned state forests should not be sacrificed to fill a budget gap,'' more than 20 conservation groups, including PennEnvironment and the Sierra Club, wrote in a letter to legislators.

Last year, the state auctioned leases for 74,000 acres of state forest land in northcentral Pennsylvania to natural gas companies interested in the mostly untapped Marcellus Shale. The money from the leases-more than $140 million-had been slated for the management of the lands, but Rendell and legislators plan to divert the money for other purposes because of a massive budget shortfall.

Under the new budget plan, hikers would see more drilling sites and roads that carve up the forests and damage wildlife habitat, while fewer forest rangers and maintenance crews would be available to protect facilities, environmental groups say.

Already, a multibillion-dollar revenue shortfall driven by the recession is affecting the management of parks and forests.

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is closing some state park and forest facilities and laying off seasonal staff earlier than usual this fall in preparation for budget cuts, administration officials said.

Some beaches are closing early, as are portions of campgrounds. The department also put all 151 seasonal employees in the Bureau of Forestry on leave without pay in mid-September. They typically work through November, department spokesman Chris Novak said.

Environmental advocates argue that instead of leasing land for drilling while natural gas prices are low, the legislature should impose a tax on gas extraction to help prop up the budget and shoulder the cost of conservation and environmental protection.

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