Secretary: ‘Muddled’ rights delay decisions

Drilling for natural gas on state forest lands hinges on ensuring proper protection of natural habitat and recreational aspects of those areas.

State Department of Conservation and Natural Resources officials say that’s their role and one they take seriously.

Those matters all weigh into the questions surrounding a vast swath of land in northern Lycoming County, where the issues become a bit more complex, DCNR officials told the Sun-Gazette Wednesday.

And they are hoping to discuss some of those issues at a public meeting 4 p.m. Monday at Lycoming College.

DCNR Secretary Richard Allan said one of the big questions center around Anadarko Petroleum Corp.’s right to drill on some 25,000 acres in Loyalsock State Forest, part of the area known as the Clarence Moore tract.

Anadarko approached DCNR seeking to develop its subsurface rights under its common law lands on about 7,000 acres where it has the right to enter on the surface of state forest lands.

The remaining 18,000 acres of the land are a sticking point, however.

“The 18,000 acres is the portion we believe we have generally more than surface control,” he said.

Anadarko has proposed a surface use agreement with DCNR to access all of their holdings. Such agreements have been used by DCNR to manage oil and gas activity on state forest lands where it does not own the subsurface rights.

Allan revealed a map, showing what he called “a patchwork of surface control” between private entities and the state.

That introduces any number of access problems to the potential drilling areas.

Further muddling the issue, he said, is that half of subsurface oil and gas interests of the 25,000 acres are owned by Anadarko and the other half are under lease agreement to Southwestern Energy Corp.

“This is a very complicated issue,” he said.

Allan said DCNR officials have had no contact at all with Southwestern Energy Corp. and none in recent months with Anadarko.

Further, no state Department of Environmental Protection permits have been issued for drilling.

In essence, the very prospect of drilling in Loyalsock State Forest could be years away, Allan conceded.

DCNR forester Dan Devlin said state officials are aware of the sensitivity of the issue.

More than 200 miles of hiking trails run through the state forest lands, including the 27-mile Old Logger’s Path, which traverses the valleys of Rock Run and Pleasant Stream, and the former lumber mill company town of Masten.

Rock Run is an Exceptional Value stream, and the headwaters of both Rock Run and Pleasant Stream emerge from wetlands that provide habitat for several threatened plant and animal species. The Clarence Moore lands are habitat for a number of animal species the state has classified as threatened, rare or at risk.

State Rep. Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport, urges citizens to attend the meeting.

“I have been working with other legislators in the General Assembly to raise awareness of this issue, and to urge DCNR and the governor to use their unique influence in this area, and their legal power, to ensure that Loyalsock State Forest is protected,” Mirabito said. “Monday’s meeting is an opportunity for members of the public to make their voice heard, as well.”

Allan said when all is said and done, the matter could end up in court.

He said Monday’s public meeting will include a PowerPoint presentation considering a number of issues such as how DCNR manages state forest lands and gas development.

A question and answer session will follow.

Mark Szybist, an attorney with Penn Future, a Harrisburg-based nonprofit advocacy organization, offered the following statement with regard to the meeting:

“The DCNR has advertised this meeting as the ‘completion’ of its interactions with the public about the Clarence Moore lands. In fact, though, it will be the DCNR’s very first public meeting on gas development in the Loyalsock State Forest. And the DCNR has yet to tell the public what Anadarko is actually proposing to do. The DCNR has a legal duty to act in the public interest in conserving and protecting Pennsylvania’s state forests. Here, acting in the public interest means sharing meaningful information with the public – and giving the public a chance to comment on Anadarko’s actual plans.”