A new invasive species is growing in Pennsylvania’s state forests. I found it this week while hiking in Loyalsock State Forest with Rock The Capital Editor Tom Owad.
Loyalsock was created in 2005 from a portions of Tiadahton, Wyoming and Tioga state forests, in the north central region of the state, near the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.
We met at the junction of U.S. 15 and Pa. 14, at a restaurant at the foot of Narrow Mountain – its name, I surmise, owing to the shape of the edifice. Nestled among dozens of peaks, this one is about four and-a-half miles along its base, and less than a mile wide. The highest point along its spine is a bit over 2,400 feet above sea level.
For reference, the village of Trout Run – home to Steam Valley Restaurant, several houses and a U.S. Post Office (Zip Code 17771) is, according to my GPS, 668 feet above sea level. (Later, I learned a good-tasting, good-sized, Reuben sandwich can be had at the restaurant for a good price, but that’s a several hours later in this tale.)
Most of the peaks in the area are about 2,100-to-2,400 feet, and the nearly 1,800-foot climb in less than a half mile is a common feature, as I learned in my first real hike of the season.
One of the things you notice walking in the forest (seemingly) primeval is paths made by the passage of early Americans. Part of the way, we followed century-old rail beds, and a few more recent logging roads, and pushed through shrubs, bushes and ferns, the plant life varying with our actual location along our path. Even deer heading down for water or a new crop of young shrubs compact the ground into permanent tracks. All the scars will be visible long after anyone reading this has departed the planet for whatever life lies in store after this one.
Eventually, we arrived where Tom’s GPS (he had been here earlier and had the track stored) said we had to turn left. That next 700 feet showed me how out of shape I was. I am fairly pleased with the exercise that keeps my legs strong, if not my tummy slim, but the hills of Adams County’s South Mountains are not as consistently steep as those the last third of our 1.4-mile walk from the truck to a planned Marcellus Shale well-site.
Several times, a sunlit spot above us would seem to indicate we were nearing the summit. We pushed upward, and arrived to find a slight leveling had hidden another climb to another sunny spot. Zig-zagging to avoid climbing straight up, I would stop for a breather and Tom would announce we were another 50 feet closer to our destination.
The forests in this region are nearly pristine. Water flows off the hills, some in streams with names such as Pleasant Stream, Gray’s Run, Long Run, and Trout Run, and some in weather-worn washes through troughs of surface shale, toward the Delaware and Susquehanna rivers.
But among the contours, we found several man-made, rubber-lined, ponds intended to store fluids used to fracture shale 8,000 feet below the surface. The process, called “fracking” releases natural gases derived from decaying sea creatures that populated the area millions of years ago, before this part of Pennsylvania and New York crashed into the coast of Ireland and western Europe. The continental collision crumpled the land, like a head-on crash crumples a Cadillac. Mountains pushed up and the sea drained away, and the critters who lived there joined the dinosaurs in making carbon-based fuels to power our cars and heat our homes.
And then we saw it, that new tree – towering well above the forest, its trunk white and straight against the green forest canopy. Those steel trees – drilling rigs – grow in clear parcels of approximately five acres carefully graded and exposed to the sun among the hill tops. (The clearings will be “reclaimed,” reduced to about a half-acre of bare ground, once the well is connected to its gas transport pipeline.)
A month ago, in one place, there had been an area being cleared, and a snowmobile trail leading into an adjacent valley. This week, a rig was boring its way to the gas, and the former snowmobile path was a three-lane-wide road to another drilling site.
We met a Timber Rattler lying on a log, waiting for dinner to wander by, on the edge of a path being cleared for a pipeline to carry the fuel to consumers and businesses from Washington, D.C. to Boston, Mass.
The Marcellus Shale being tapped is thought to hold the energy of two Saudi Arabias – and its proximity to one of the two largest population regions in the U.S. (the other is California) – makes drilling for natural gas profitable.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that the steel trees will become a permanent fixture of the mountains of northern and central Pennsylvania. The well is drilled, the deep shale fractured – then the towering rig removed and the well capped until pipelines can be attached.
But is also seems silly to imply the drilling sites – we identified eight in a six-square-mile area – might be “reclaimed” to their former wilderness. The roads and clearings resemble large housing developments being built in southern counties before the housing bubble burst. Although their borders will be surrounded by grasses and shrubs planted to keep the mountains from washing away, the roads and clearings will remain easily visible and travelable.
And if we’re lucky, the open impoundments, each holding three to four million gallons of toxic fracking fluid, will not leak. Experience with landfills over the years indicates that may not be 100 percent certain. Unfortunately, only the first accident will prove the results to flora, fauna, and Susquehanna River.
The rush is on to drill the wells before the Commonwealth’s legislature can create regulations to ensure the safety of fracking fluid storage, and maybe mitigate some of the roads and pathways through the state’s forests. More than 3,000 wells were drilled in the state from 2007 through 2010, about half of them in the last year alone, David A. Yoxtheimer, of the Penn State University Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research said during an information forum in March. The Nature Conservancy has estimated 10,000 wells will be completed by 2030.
It is unrealistic, given our hunger for the fuel that lies below, to try to stop the drilling.
But one could hope the Commonwealth’s legislature could move with the same speed to develop protective regulations as the Marcellus Gas industry is moving to develop well sites.
Photo by John Messeder
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