The 25-year-old Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources was replaced by two new agencies July 1, fulfilling a campaign promise of Gov. Tom Ridge to split the states environmental regulatory functions from its resource management actions.
The governor said the division of DER would make the state more user friendly to those it regulates and would provide a Cabinet-level advocate for parks and forests. We have not eliminated DER, Ridge said. We have better defined Pennsylvanias environmental mission.
James Seif, who had led the DER, was named secretary of the new Department of Environmental Protection. John C. Oliver III, the longtime president of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, is Ridges choice to head the new Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, though he still must be confirmed by the Senate.
Ridge said the breakup legislation, which passed with bipartisan support, will enable the state to be more effective and less confrontational in policing the environment. No longer do we intend to treat law-abiding citizens like criminals, Ridge said. Instead, we seek to work with those that share our goal of environmental protection as partners.
He said the legislation also underscores the importance Pennsylvania places on its parks and forests. This new law publicly recognizes something we already know Pennsylvanias parks, forests, recreational assets and tourism attractions are second to none in the nation.
The legislation also split environmental groups. Some, such as The Nature Conservancy, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy supported the breakup, while others, such as the Sierra Club, opposed the move.
We were opposed fundamentally to creating a barrier to the management of our air and water resources and the management of our public lands, said Jeff Schmidt, of the state chapter of the Sierra Club. This further distances professionals in those agencies.
Schmidt noted that air pollution can impact forest health, and that oil and gas drilling and timber activities can affect water quality, but those activities will now be housed in different agencies, creating an artificial barrier for managers.
Legislation that allowed the breakup did scrap one of Ridges proposals that critics objected t the elimination of the state Environmental Quality Board. The EQB, an appointed panel, received public input and adopted regulations for the old DER. Critics said its elimination would remove an important avenue for public participation in the regulatory process. Under the legislation, EQB will continue to adopt regulations for the new DEP, but not the DCNR.
The legislation also gives the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture more authority in the State Conservation Commission, which sets policies for Pennsylvanias 66 local conservation districts. The commission is charged with enforcing the states new Nutrient Management Law which requires the states largest farms to develop and implement nutrient management plans.
Previously, the chairmanship of the commission automatically went to the DER secretary. Now it will rotate each year between the DEP secretary and the agriculture secretary. And instead of the commission being staffed solely by the environmental agency, the legislation creates a new, independent, executive director for the commission and directs the state Department of Agriculture to support the commission with the enforcement of laws that deal exclusively with production agriculture.
The creation of the split chairmanship was a compromise with those who wanted the commission transferred entirely to the agriculture department. Some in the agricultural community have worried that a commission staffed solely by the states environmental regulatory agency would be too strongly influenced by environmental advocates.
The new Department of Environmental Protection will oversee the regulation of air, water and land pollution activities, as well as wetlands. The department will have 3,000 employees and a budget of $442 million.
The new DCNR will be in charge of the states forest lands, state parks and river conservation activities. It will have 1,300 full-time employees, 1,400 seasonal workers and a budget of $177 million.
Oliver, was to become acting head of the agency Aug. 1. He has been associated with the Pittsburgh-based Western Pennsylvania Conservancy for 25 years, serving as president and chief executive officer since 1978. He formerly directed its land operations.
The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy is a private, nonprofit land conservation organization which, since its founding in 1932, has helped to acquire and protect more than 200,000 acres of wild lands and natural areas. Its purchase and conveyance of wilderness areas has enabled the creation of five state parks and several additions to state forests and game lands. It also owns and operates a popular tourist attraction, Fallingwater, the house over a waterfall in Fayette County designed by the late architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Oliver has also served on the Citizens Advisory Council, an advisory panel to the old DER and the new DEP, since 1983. He also led Ridges transition team on the environment.
He is the co-founder and director of Decision Resources Inc., a Pittsburgh company that provides computer hardware and software services to manufacturing and distribution firms.
The new department will not manage all of the states resources, though. The Game Commission, which controls about 1 million acres of state game land, and the Fish and Boat Commission, will remain independent agencies.