Tioga Fragmentation

September 9, 2011

By Lilace

A red eft on the rocks on a rainy day. The terrestrial adolescent stage of a red-spotted newt (newts are salamanders). Photo by Jackie Schlitzer.

One of the things that concerns wildlife conservationists is the process of habitat fragmentation—when an organism’s preferred environment is interrupted or discontinuities are introduced. This can happen slowly though geologic processes, or abruptly through human activity. Think of a salamander minding its own moist business on the forest floor. Then, suddenly, where there was once shade and dampness there is only a dirt road. A wide, dry, sunny expanse interrupting its ideal habitat and introducing stress and danger.

Some salamanders will cross and live, some will cross and die, and some salamanders will choose to stay where they are and not cross at all. Thus, habitat fragmentation can cause population fragmentation.

Here in Tioga County we are witnessing the start of some serious habitat fragmentation—and not just for the salamanders. Have you tried crossing Main Street in Mansfield? We two-legged creatures are now risking our lives regularly. And we have a traffic light.

More roads, pipelines, and smaller swaths cut for seismic testing are criss-crossing fields and woodlands everywhere you look. If you’ve talked with someone who works for a company involved with the natural gas industry you’ve heard them say how much more the landscape here will change. How we won’t even recognize it. And I never understand how they can smile when they say that.

Here, then, is where one can see population fragmentation kicking in. I don’t understand him, and he doesn’t understand me. If the gasman is from Texas or Oklahoma, I chalk it up to his lack of love and loyalty for this place. But that’s not always the case.

Let me back up.

Since we’ve been writing this blog, I’ve had some interesting conversations with friends and acquaintances that I wouldn’t have had before. One friend whose advice I ask on many topics and projects, said to me, “We agree on lots of things, and you’ve made your decisions and we [he and his wife] have made ours. So, can you tell me what made you decide not to lease?” It was an honest question, and I can’t say I know exactly what motivated him to ask it, but it occurred to me that I never hear people asking each other this type of question. I never hear that because whatever decision a person’s made, that’s the obvious decision and you just can’t talk to those other people. Or maybe it’s just not worth wasting your time. Or you just don’t want to get into a messy discussion.

Pipeline construction in July off Orebed, er, Pipeline Road 7. It is re-seeded now.

I have been guilty of this without realizing it. By assuming every conversation with someone who has another perspective on drilling will be a debate rather than a discussion, I have often closed myself off from people in my community. Even if only avoiding this topic, it divided me from the people I need to work with, brainstorm with, disagree with, and problem solve with. Population fragmentation.

I was reading GoMarcellusShale.com , which is an online forum for anyone and everyone interested in the issues. It’s done by region and is one of the best clearinghouses I’ve seen of information on the ground from various perspectives. There are questions and concerns about legalities, seismic testing, risk factors, the reputations of different companies, and so on. A lot of discussions are about leases and how to get the best deal and what things to watch out for. There is some serious sharing going on here.

One thread got my attention when I read a commenter say, “I don’t understand why someone wouldn’t lease!” It stunned me that someone honestly wouldn’t know. In the same way my instant reaction to my friend (in my head) was it’s obvious why we didn’t lease. Yet because he was a good friend with whom I agree on so many social and environmental issues, I knew it couldn’t be obvious. So I thought before I spoke.

There are many things I’ve learned in the last year that make me glad we haven’t leased. And one that worries me—rule of capture/forced pooling. But the question was why, with what we knew then, did we choose not to lease, and I think there were some basic things it came down to for Jimmy and me.

We’re pretty content with our simple life. We aren’t the type to dream of getting rich quick. We lived in Reno six years and didn’t even play the slots in the grocery store. And we don’t trust corporations, especially ones that take advantage of people with less experience or education. The two of us certainly don’t have any experience in the gas scene or OGM leasing, so trying to stay on top of things would be stress we didn’t need. And we have studied and taught environmental issues. We see the certain and possible consequences of this gas boom all too clearly.

But perhaps the main reason was property value. There were so many red flags, and the market was starting to show signs of splitting—unleased properties increasing in value and leased ones losing ground. We didn’t like the thought that, down the road if we needed to sell, a lease might be considered a lien against our property, or the gas company could pay off our house and become the primary mortgage holder (it’s happened).  If something should contaminate our water due to drilling around us, we have a better legal standing because we are not benefitting monetarily.

That’s our story. We know folks who were ecstatic to lease, ones who are waiting and hoping for the landman to call, ones who were locked in by their old leases, ones who leased reluctantly because they felt it would give them more control over their fate, ones who never considered it and are sure we’re all doomed to poisoned water and air, ones who’ve moved away or are trying to, ones who don’t own land but are glad to have a job fracking because it pays their bills, and townspeople who resent the traffic and changes they are footing the tax bill for with no compensation. And I’m sure there are other perspectives too.

This is my community, my population. And one of the biggest tolls of the Marcellus Shale boom is how fragmented we’ve become. Not that we all agreed on everything before. Rural people (been heres and come heres) are feisty and independent. But rural people, especially farmers, also know that we are strongest when we help each other. It’s the fastest way to get that truck out of the ditch.

So share your story and concerns by commenting here and/or talking with neighbors. No matter how different our perspectives are on the industrial changes occurring, all of us who live here want the gas companies to do right by the people, land, and wildlife. We all want to drink deeply and breathe easily. That’s enough common ground for us to meet on, don’t you think?