Rock Run is a crystal clear stream that runs down through Loyalsock State Forest. It drains a part of the Old Loggers Path, one of the state’s best hiking trails. There is drilling to the North, and to the South. But until recently, it looked like trail and the stream would be spared from development in the Marcellus shale.
For Ralph Kisberg, that changed last summer.
“Someone [called] me to say, what’s going on in Rock Run? The frackers are up there! They’re all over the place!”
Kisberg is president of the environmental group the Responsible Drilling Alliance. White pickups were seen running up and down the small forest roads above Rock Run.
"One family I’m close with said, if they get rock run, we’re leaving. That’s it. We’re out of here," Kisberg said. "They love it here, but they’re not sticking around if Rock Run is part of this development."
Kisberg drove around the forest, and realized the trucks were there to conduct seismic testing -- a preliminary step before drilling can take place.
A FOREST MYSTERY
The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), which manages the forest, made no public statements about the testing. So Kisberg did some research of his own.
With an attorney, he researched the land records for the Old Loggers Path, and found out that Anadarko, a Houston-based energy company, owned half the mineral rights to the land beneath the trail.
That explained the seismic testing. Anadarko has drilled 150 deep shale wells on state forest lands in the region near Williamsport, including in nearby Sproul and Tiadaghton State Forests.
But the research turned up something else. The land under the Old Loggers Path is subject to a complicated legal history, and its future could hinge on an obscure clause inserted into an 80-year-old land deal.
At one time, the land was owned by the Central Pennsylvania Lumber company. In 1933, the company sold the land to the state, but kept the mineral rights.
Normally, this means the company would have an unbridled right to come onto the land to drill or mine for coal.
But in this case, the land was essentially put on a timer. The company would have 50 years to extract the minerals. After that, the rights of surface access for 18,000 acres of forest--a tract of land a little bigger than Manhattan--went back to the state.
Les Greevy, an oil and gas attorney in Williamsport, said this was a rare case where the surface owner had an upper hand over the mineral owner.
“If you want to come on it you’re going to have to negotiate … with DCNR with regards to what you’re going to pay for it and what are the conditions going to be,” Greevy said.
Eventually, a man named Clarence Moore aquired the mineral rights to the land. In 1983, after the 50 year period expired, Moore tried to regain surface access.
But in 1989, a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court rebuffed him. It said the DCNR could keep drillers off the land if it wanted to.
STATE REMAINS TIGHT-LIPPED
Despite this decision, and a 1999 Pennsylvania Board of Claims decision upholding that decision, the agency doesn’t agree.
“As the law applies DCNR can’t prohibit access to subsurface mineral rights if we don’t own them,” said Chris Novak DCNR’s press secretary.
Other DCNR officials have said Anadarko and other companies could sue if the state tries to keep the company off the Old Loggers Path.
Novak and the DCNR remain tight-lipped about the agency’s discussions with Anadarko. But Kisberg and others grew alarmed last year when survey markers for what looked like well pads began showing up in the forest.
Records obtained by the environmental group PennFuture through right-to-know requests raised alarms even more--revealing that Anadarko has been talking with the state about a development plan for the forest for much of the past year. The details of those plans remain unclear.
An Anadarko spokeswoman would only say that no development plans had been approved for the Loyalsock State Forest--the home forest for the Old Loggers Path.
Mark Szybist, an attorney for PennFuture who has been working on the case, says the state shouldn’t keep its plans for the forest from the public.
“It’s not right for DCNR to be making these decisions on its own without any public review of the documents,” Szybist said. “You know, if DCNR is so confident that it’s going to make the right decision, then why not let the public look over its shoulder a little bit, and have a seat at the table.”
The DCNR counters that the state simply doesn’t do public reviews of drilling plans on public lands.
REFUGE IN PERIL?
The debate is only heightened because the state has already leased 700,000 acres of forest land--that’s a third of the entire state forest system. That means places like the Old Loggers’ Path are becoming more rare, says Paul Zeph, director of conservation for the state’s Audobon Society.
“This is one of the places in the state that should be off limits,” Zeph said.
The forest is known habitat for species like the timber rattlesnake and pitcher plants. A DCNR survey of the area conducted in advance of seismic testing found rare plants like creeping snowberry and the great-spurred violet, which is a so-called “proposed rare” plant in Pennsylvania.
The area contains large blocks of forest that have rebounded from years of mining and timbering in the past, Zeph says. Numerous springs and seeps keep it wet. That’s good for bugs, and the bugs are good food for migratory songbirds, like the scarlet tanager, wood thrush and black-throated blue warbler--who nest there. Plus these forest blocks are quiet, and the birds like that.
The forests in the area “have become a quiet, important refuge area for these species to reproduce,” Zeph says.
No matter how careful DCNR and Anadarko plan the development, drilling is loud and disruptive. And it would chase away some of these birds, Zeph said.
“The noise the air pollution, the fragmentation will send them away,” Zeph said. “And there’s nowhere else in Pennsylvania for them to go.”