The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources will be split into two agencies under legislation recently presented by Gov. Tom Ridge. The change would create a Department of Environmental Protection that would focus on environmental regulation and enforcement, and a Department of Conservation and Natural Resources that would oversee the state's parks and forest lands.

"Today, we begin to think anew about environmental protection," Ridge said in announcing the plan March 22. "First, my new Department of Environmental Protection will work with people as partners, in a spirit of cooperation to protect our precious environment. Secondly, and for the first time, the unique needs of our state parks and forests will be addressed by elevating their concerns to cabinet-level status."

Ridge announced his proposal at a news conference on the Capitol lawn after he and DER Secretary James M. Seif planted a hemlock, the state tree, to mark the 100th anniversary of the state forestry bureau. Ridge hopes to have the change implemented by July 1.

The proposal has been backed by a number of former DER secretaries, local government associations and environmental groups including the Nature Conservancy, the state chapter of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and the Pennsylvania Resources Council.

Some, such as the state Sierra Club chapter, are more skeptical of the proposed change. "Creating an artificial barrier between the agencies that manage air and water quality, oil and gas drilling, and mining and the agency that manages public lands will result in less coordination and worse decision-making," said Sierra Club lobbyist Jeff Schmidt.

An even bigger concern, and one shared by DER's own Citizens Advisory Council, is the legislation's proposal to eliminate the rule-making authority of the 21-member Environmental Quality Board. Under the legislation, the ability to formulate and adopt rules would instead rest with the secretaries of the new agencies. Critics say removing the EQB from the rule-making process will reduce the public's ability to influence new regulations, giving the administration more power.

The board is effective in forcing the department to respond to complaints, said Susan Wilson, executive director of the Citizens Advisory Council. "They may not agree with it, but they would respond to it," she said.

Under other reforms being proposed by Ridge, rules would be made though a regulatory negotiation, or "reg-neg," process which seeks to bring representatives of all sides together to develop agreed-upon regulations and policies.

The new DEP would have about 3,000 employees and a proposed 1995-96 budget of about $442.2 million. It would handle issues related to sewage disposal, drinking water, mineral resources development, waste disposal, air pollution control, wetland regulation and other environmental protection activities.

In addition, the governor has directed that the DEP include a new Office of Pollution Prevention and Compliance Assistance to provide assistance to individuals, businesses and local governments so they can better understand and comply with environmental laws and regulations. The new department will also develop an expedited permit review process.

A "21st Century Environment Commission" will be created to identify the most important environmental problems facing the state to help direct limited resources to the most serious issues.

The new DCR would have about 1,300 to 1,400 employees and a 1995-96 budget of about $177.4 million. It will operate the state's more than 100 parks and oversee the nearly 2.3 million acres of state forests. The department would also be responsible for river conservation, and would house the state Topographic and Geologic Survey and the state Wild Resource Conservation Board. The Bureau of Recreation and Conservation would be transferred to the new DCR from the Department of Community Affairs.

Ridge said that a cabinet-level resources agency is necessary to better manage and protect the state's parks and forests and reflects the importance of their contributions to Pennsylvania. The state parks system is the third largest in the country, and forest products are the state's fourth-largest industry, employing more than 100,000 people and contributing more than $4.5 billion to the state economy.

"Our parks and forests are the treasures of Pennsylvania and our state constitution requires us to be careful stewards of them," Ridge said. "Too often, however, the needs of our parks and forests have been afterthoughts. No longer."

The governor has not nominated anyone to serve as secretary of the new department. Ridge spokesman Tim Reeves said the governor would delay recruiting a candidate until the General Assembly establishes the new agency.

The legislation does not affect the state Game Commission and the Fish and Boat Commission, both of which would remain independent agencies. The Associated Press contributed to this report.