Fire Sale

Unable, after a hundred days, to balance the budget, the Senate, House and Gov. Rendell have put a sign on our State Forest lands saying “Fire Sale. Must sell.”

One of the last unresolved issues is the proposal to lease a minimum of 96,000 acres of State Forest land for natural gas drilling, or however much it takes to yield $240 million.  Although those numbers may change, the fact remains: this will overturn a century of careful forest management that earned Pennsylvania a sustainable forest certification.

Pennsylvania (Penn’s Woods) has arguably the finest state forest system created from the timbered over wastelands of the early 1900s. People like Joseph Trimble Rothrock, Gifford Pinchot, and Maurice Goddard built the system with millions of dollars in private and public investment. As a result, these millions of acres provide resources for habitat, hunting and fishing lands, timber sources, and oil and gas producers.

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources knows how to manage its lands to balance all of those uses. And, the agency knows how to maximize its return on the timber and mineral resources it holds. As an example, last year, DCNR leased 74,000 acres of State Forest land for Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling and received $191 million for those rights in upfront payments. But those acres were carefully selected to yield the best price for the natural gas and reduce any adverse impacts to the environment and wild areas.

Now, politicians in Harrisburg are getting ready to tell DCNR to forget everything it knows about wisely managing multiple uses and mandate the agency lease enough State Forest land over the next two years to raise a specific amount of money. In addition, they are setting a minimum bid price for the rights; a price well below that of recent transactions for similar lands. This is not only bad public policy, it’s not a smart business tactic.

This is not an argument against Marcellus Shale gas drilling. This is an argument against selling off the phenomenal assets that we have acquired over the last hundred years for a very short term gain. There are other ways to raise revenues, for example enacting a natural gas severance tax that covers all natural gas production, not just the small amount that happens on public lands.

Let’s not balance the budget by giving away the forests. Let DCNR do its job, they have proven they can.