DUSHORE - The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources went ahead with a closed-door meeting with invited "stakeholders" Thursday at its district offices here about proposed natural gas drilling on thousands of acres of land in the Loyalsock State Forest situated in Lycoming County.
About 50 people attended the meeting, including all three Lycoming County commissioners, state Reps. Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport and Garth Everett, R-Muncy, and state Sen. E. Eugene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township. Also in attendance were two supervisors from McIntyre Township - where proposed natural gas drilling could take place by Anadarko Petroleum Corp. - and one from McNett Township.
State Reps. Ron Miller, R-Jacobus and Greg Vitali, D-Havertown, chairmen of the House Environmental Services and Energy Committee, also attended the meeting.
Asked if the public or news media could attend the meeting, DCNR officials said only those invited by the agency could be included.
Several environmental groups were included, however, including the Responsible Drilling Alliance, Lycoming County Audubon Society, Susquehanna Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Muncy Creek Watershed Association, Alpine
Club of Williamsport, Highland Lake Snowmobile and Outdoor Recreation Club and a regional chapter of the state's Sierra Club.
State Rep. Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport, center, speaks to members of the public who were not invited to a Thursday meeting held to discuss proposed natural gas drilling in Loyalsock State Forest.
Environmental advocacy groups lined the site of a close-door meeting site with posters stating their beliefs about gas drilling.
People mingle after the conclusion of a closed-door meeting Thursday at a Bureau of Forestry Office in Dushore. Members of the public were able to talk with some of the attendees after the meeting finished.
Discussions reportedly centered around what DCNR is doing related to development of possible gas drilling sites in the so-called Clarence Moore Lands, which includes 25,000 acres of forest lands - some of which contain highly sensitive environmental areas.
"This obviously isn't going to be the first exchange of information or interaction with anyone," explained Christine Novak, DCNR press secretary before the meeting. "We understand that there is a lot of interest on what's going on here on the Clarence Moore Lands, but the meeting today was really meant to put together a group that can have an exchange of information, so it needed to be a smaller group so conversations could occur and update folks on where we're at."
The Sun-Gazette reported Tuesday that the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association's media law counsel, Melissa Melewsky, believed there could be a Sunshine Law violation if a quorum of elected officials appeared at the meeting convened by DCNR.
Melewsky said the closed-door meeting circumvents the public's right to know what their elected officials are doing.
"It was basically a Q-and-A," said Lycoming County Commissioner Jeff C. Wheeland. "I don't think there were any surprises to anyone."
He did say, however, that he felt DCNR should make an attempt at opening up future meetings on the subject.
"It should have been something that was open," said Mirabito. "I did bring that up. I thought it would clarify any misinformation that people may have."
Before the meeting took place, DCNR Secretary Richard J. Allan and State Forester Daniel A. Devlin said they chose to keep the group closed to control the conversation.
"The world wants to know this kind of stuff, but from our perspective, we want to have a conversation," said Devlin.
Allan said DCNR has no policy - and no intention - of holding public meetings on natural gas drilling on state forest lands.
"It's not something that we've ever done. It's not something that we do," he said. "We have been criticized by one or two organizations that portray themselves as representing everybody that has an interest in this. They're not local. That's why we're here today to meet with the people who do have a local, direct interest into this tract of land."
Allen said that DCNR finds itself in an uncommon situation with the Clarence Moore Lands because the state owns surface rights, while subsurface rights are owned and equally divided between Anadarko and Southwestern Energy Corp.
"This is a very, very unique tract we have not dealt with before as far as the question of ownership rights. What's unique about this is the question of surface access and rights to the surface access," he said.
Novak said that DCNR continues to be in discussions with Anadarko to develop its mineral rights within the Loyalsock State Forest, but the agency's main role is to protect the state's assets, not to collect money from gas drillers.
According to DCNR, "there is no law or regulation that outlines or requires any process or time frame for these talks or contracts. DCNR has and continues to be guided by its primary responsibility to protect the Loyalsock State Forest, while recognizing the unique and complex legal issues surrounding this situation."
Dan Alters, president of the Lycoming County Audubon Society, said that environmental groups like his didn't have much of a chance to make an impact at the meeting.
"We learned a little bit, but did not have an opportunity for input. It wasn't set up for input," he said.
Kevin Heatley, an ecologist and scientific advisor to the Responsible Drilling Alliance, said that discussions should have included a broader segment of the community.
"This just isn't owned by Lycoming County, it's owned by the state," he said.
PennFuture, a statewide environmental advocacy group that sought to attend the meeting but was denied, issued a news release Thursday evening that said DCNR's closed-door conversation denied the public's voice to be heard.
"The commonwealth may not grant Anadarko surface rights unless the DCNR determines that doing so is in the public interest. And the DCNR cannot determine what the public interest is without seeking input from the public at large through public hearings and a public comment period," said Mark Szybist, PennFuture attorney. "The DCNR may not pick and choose its public."