I have been hiking and driving recently in Loyalsock State Forest, north of Williamsport, and south of the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. I enjoy wandering in the woods, but trips to Loyalsock have special purpose: that is one of the areas where I can see the immediate effects of Marcellus Shale drilling on our forests.
My first walk into the Loyalsock woods was along what appeared to be an abandoned railroad bed, left from a long-gone logging industry. A pile of weather-grayed lumber marked where men once had built something, or planned to. There were no rails remaining, just a wide flat trail through the trees.
There is a notion being published that clear-cutting – whether from logging, coal mining or Marcellus Shale drilling – is easy to “reclaim” once the work is done. Those who offer that idea would have us believe the land will be restored to the way is was before the work began.
That rail bed is proof “it ain’t so!” A few 100-pound Whitetail deer, if they travel the same route long enough, can pack the ground into a trail that will be visible for many human generations. In some parts of the country, I have seen trails purported to have been used by Native Americans before there was a United States.
You can plant grass and some trees, but restoration will be a long time coming.
Natural progression would be for the ferns to grow in, then small brush, then soft woods such as poplars and pines, and finally hardwoods such as birch and maple. Industry often promises to “reclaim” the land when it is through, but this path, and others we found like it, are proof that reclamation is a long process.
The best humans can do it plant grass, and maybe a few trees – which deer likely will eat. It takes Mother Nature decades to grow trees faster than deer can devour them.
Roads are being improved, in some cases created, to carry the loads of big rigs hauling materials and equipment to the drilling sites. The loads include logs being removed during land clearing, ground moved to other places as hills are leveled into five-acre clearings for the drilling operations, drill rigs and supporting equipment, and three million gallons of water per well for the “fracking” that will release natural gas from shale 8,000 feet below the surface.
A couple weeks before I shot the picture accompanying this article, a path had been opened into the forest, marking the direction toward a new drilling site, and a pipeline that will carry gas from the wells toward consumers in Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
A week ago, the path was more than 100 feet wide and stretched downhill into the forest. Eventually, it will extend to the top of the distant mountain ridge. Blasting is expected to begin in another week, in preparation for construction of a pipeline, one of many that will connect the wells – at least eight of them in one six-square-mile area of one state forest.
The roads are wide enough for big trucks to travel one way – up the mountains or down. In one place, a snowmobile trail has been widened and “improved” with crushed rock to support trucks, one-road-up and one-road-down, as work progresses and traffic increases.
Currently about 700,000 acres of the commonwealth’s 2.2 million acres of state forest have been made available for Marcellus drilling. According to Pa. Secretary of Community and Economic Development Alan Walker, the state could gain about $60 billion over the next three decades if it would lease the rest of its state forests to Marcellus drilling.
“The way the drilling platforms are being set up today – where you may only have to have one pad every so many square miles,” Walker is quoted in statewide media. “it’s a minimum impact on the state forest property, and in a matter of a couple of years, it’s going to be revegetated.”
But Walker ignores, or has not visited, the roads and pipelines that connect the well sites, and the decades it will take Mother Nature to restore the rest of the forest.
There is, indeed, money in them there hills – lots of it. But this isn’t the early 1800s, when we did not know the long-term effects of strip mining and deforestation, or what to do to mitigate them.
We know now that whatever we do to the forest will take more than “a couple of years” to erase.
Photo by John Messeder
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