When you spend nearly 40 years working for the same employer, you are bound to experience change.
Dan Devlin, Pennsylvania’s state forester and director of the Bureau of Forestry, retired in March with four decades’ worth of observations about protecting and managing public forests. During his career, he navigated fundamental changes in the philosophy and science of forest management, as well as grappling with a game changer that few people saw coming: the surge of drilling for natural gas using a controversial technique known as fracking — including wells in state forests.
“We’ve come a long way,” Devlin said. “The forestry profession and forests are going to become more and more important as time goes on.”
The drilling boom in Pennsylvania, focused on tapping gas in the Marcellus Shale formation, put the state in the national spotlight and the integrity of 2.2 million acres of state forest squarely in Devlin’s lap.
“We just weren’t ready for it,” Devlin said. “But I said, ‘we had no choice in this but we’re going to do the best damn job we can.’ We all struggled, personally and professionally.”
Devlin was appointed bureau director and state forester in 2008, after three years as assistant state forester and nearly 30 years in other state forestry roles. As state forester, Devlin was responsible for the oversight of all of state forest lands, as well as conserving native plants; managing forest fires; protecting forests from insects and disease; and promoting the conservation of both private and state-owned forests.
He faced drilling questions almost as soon as he was appointed.
Gov. Edward Rendell saw value in the drilling boom, which hit while Pennsylvania was facing its worse budgetary crises in decades. The energy industry wanted to lease state land for drilling, and the revenue was needed. The state legislature approved the drilling and applied most of the $168 million made on the first lease to the gaping hole in the budget.
The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources leased out nearly 700,000 acres of state forests of the 1.5 million that are underlain with Marcellus Shale formations.
It wasn’t the first time the forests have been drilled; state land has been leased for conventional drilling for years. In fact, the decision was made to open up previously drilled land for the first lease. But the hydraulic fracturing technique was new to the state, with a different method, infrastructure needs and the footprint of well pads. Well pads measured in acres were cleared from deep forest and were accompanied by more acres of wastewater ponds and pipelines.
The bureau wasn’t ready for the scale and scope of the industry, Devlin said. It had to learn the basics and then catch up as the industry took off.
Devlin said the lack of knowledge was so great that they didn’t think it would be a problem to have a rig set up in the Pine Creek Valley, an area where the viewshed is protected from development. The staff didn’t know that the standard fracking rig is approximately 125 feet tall and would extend well above the tree line.
Devlin said the bureau could make trade-offs and choices by selecting where the drilling pads and pipelines could be located. “We had to err on the ecological side of caution when faced with a choice,” Devlin said.
Cynthia Adams Dunn, secretary of the DCNR, which oversees the bureau, said that Devlin was adept at managing difficult situations. “When we talk about our role as managers of state forest lands we always mention balancing different values and uses, and I think providing balance is where Dan has shone,” Dunn said.
The approach to forest management also changed dramatically during Devlin’s career.
When he started his first position with the state in 1981, at what was then called the Department of Environmental Resources, most foresters were primarily trained to manage forests — including state forests — for the production of timber.
Devlin was part of a new generation interested in broader ecosystem management, maintaining forests to also ensure clean headwater streams and biodiversity. Recreational uses have changed, too, from a small number of hikers or anglers who didn’t expect visitor services to a growing population of diverse users that includes ATV riders, horse riders, kayakers and mountain bikers.
“Dan was instrumental in establishing an ecosystem management approach to protect biodiversity while incorporating human uses of our public lands,” Dunn said. “He is a true conservationist and public servant.”
Those early years were frustrating, Devlin said. He was a progressive in a department full of traditional foresters. While some “got it” he said, most were heading toward retirement and less interested in learning about ecosystem management or data analysis software.
“Dan kept up with all that stuff. He was young enough to be modern but old enough to know what it was like in the old days,” said James Grace, state forester when Devlin came on board. “At that time, there was no such thing as an ecological services section. Or forest rangers. Or a remote sensing group. And no Marcellus gas. He’s bridged that very, very well.”
Devlin spent time in the planning department, where he wrote guidance on topics such as climate change and forest management. One of his favorite projects was the development of the Pine Creek Rail Trail — a 62-mile route in rural, northcentral Pennsylvania and the first Rails to Trails project in the state. The trail was developed for its spectacular views in an area of gorges, coldwater streams and sweet-smelling forest referred to as Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon.
It took a lot of charisma and persuasion to convince the small local governments of the benefits the trail would bring — including people from Philadelphia.
“Most didn’t want it. They worried that it would bring people in from Philly, and they would wreck things, throw garbage about and murder people,” he said with a chuckle. “Now the same people who were against it love it.”
Today, the Pine Creek trail is a well-known attraction for hikers, bicyclists and horseback riders from all over the country and beyond. It is prominently featured on the region’s tourist websites and brochures that aim to attract an urban crowd with thick wallets.
Devlin said he has done some thinking about how he will spend his time during retirement. He has a son who opened a mirco-brewery recently and has been trying to him to get involved. And he’s leaving just in time for trout season, so maybe he’ll throw a few flies into a creek or two.
But he expects to keep thinking about the future of “Penn’s Woods.” Invasive species? He finds that problem in northeastern forests analogous to the wild fires in the western states. His thoughts also linger on fragmented forests, as parcels of private forest are carved into smaller and smaller lots. And then there is climate change. Devlin said the impacts won’t be as dramatic in Pennsylvania as in coastal areas, but they will more insidious — something you have to learn to manage and live with.
“I had a wonderful career,” Devlin said. “There are plenty of challenges ahead. I’m sure the younger generation is going to handle it just fine. There are a lot of good folks in this profession. It’s not a job, it’s a passion.”