Five Acres, My Ass

September 19, 2012

by Jimmy

I was pedaling toward this area. Beautiful, ain’t it?

Back in Aught Nine, I attended a lot of public meetings about the technology of fracking and the development of the gas industry in this region. Most of these meetings painted a rosy picture of the industry, and given that most of these meetings were sponsored by the industry in some way, this is not surprising. (A notable exception was the informational meeting I attended in Waverly, NY. That meeting provided a more balanced picture.) One phrase that came up over and over referred to the size of the well pads: “less than five acres.” The phrase was used in ways that always made it sound like five acres was small, the implication being “you’ll barely know we are here.” I wondered at the time: How many wells are we talking about here? Are they including roads in that figure? Other support infrastructure? I doubted it, and here’s why.

I ride my bike all over this area. I’ve ridden most of the roads in a thirty mile radius around Whitneyville multiple times, and I often pedal fifty or more miles away. I’ve “mapped” a lot of gas activity this way, and I’ve noticed a cumulative effect of these “five acre” pads. They may only be five acres, about four football fields, but there’s a lot of them. And that doesn’t include all the other stuff that goes along with them, like the pipeline.

So, I got an idea. On a solo ride from my house to Tioga State Forest near Asaph, I cataloged the number of gas industry disturbances I could see, ranging from pipelines to well pads to industry support. Here’s what I came up with in a 35 mile ride, 10 miles of which I rode twice (out and back). The route I followed look like a scraggly lollipop if you trace it on a map.

  1. Entrance to pipeline construction west of Scouten Hill Rd.
  2. Pipeline construction under Scouten Hill Rd.
  3. Well pad east of Scouten Hill Rd after crossing Hills Creek Lake Rd.
  4. Well pad and compressor station west of Scouten Hill Rd. after crossing Hills Creek Lake Rd.
  5. Pipeline construction east of Hills Creek Rd.
  6. Pipeline construction under Reese Hill Rd.
  7. Former water truck parking area south of Reese Hill Rd.
  8. Pipeline construction under Ikes Rd.
  9. Well pad south of Ikes Rd.
  10. Gas compressor station north of Muck Rd.
  11. Frack sand facility at railroad station on Muck Rd.
  12. Gas industry building north of Muck Rd. (off Highway 287).

At this point, I’m ten miles into the ride, and I’m about to climb Baldwin Run Rd. into the Asaph section of Tioga State Forest. For the next fifteen miles, the industry disappears, except for the well pad entrance south of Baldwin Run Rd. (Or Bennet Rd. Different maps give me different names.) Then I start home, passing the sites in reverse. I recall seeing the orange-and-gray boxes sprouting wires signifying seismic testing out that way in the past, though I’m not positive it was in the forest proper. It may have been only on the Rail Trail. But I’ve seen those boxes—another kind of mapping—everywhere.

The reality of those industrial sites puts “only five acres” into a new perspective for me. But this is one way the industry played down their impacts at the outset of their development. I could have steered my bike in any direction from my house and counted a similar number. The cumulative number adds up. Quickly. Since 2007, over forty-four hundred Marcellus wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania. That’s roughly 22,000 acres, or 83,600 football fields, cut into the forests and fields. Who knows what the number would look like if we included the pipeline and all the other stuff that keeps the industry up and running.

Of course, some will say: so what? Twenty-two thousand acres is around three percent of Tioga County’s 727,680 acres. It’s around fourteen percent of Tioga State Forest’s 160,000 acres. That’s a dot on the map. So, one could argue that the industry hasn’t had all that big of an impact. But it depends on how we define impacts, of course, and that we include other factors, like traffic and water use. But lately, I wonder most about the impact that it has on the maps in our minds.

Case in point. Two years ago, I reconnoitered some trails near Asaph for my mountain bike class. I saw what I needed to see and decided to ride some extra miles, descending the Green Monster to Left Straight Run Trail, descending Straight Run Road, and then climbing back up Asaph Road to my car. It was Friday, the woods were quiet, except for the occasional jungle call of pileated woodpeckers, and I soaked up that vibe. But as I descended the Green Monster to Left Straight, a beautiful trail with multiple creek crossings, I noticed pink surveyor ribbon tied to branches or blackberries every twenty or thirty feet. The further I descended, the more I saw, even after I hit Left Straight. I kept looking at each one, trying to read its portents like a psychic reads tea leaves. I worried that the trail, one of my favorites, was about to become part of a pipeline. I cursed the thought that public land my taxes pay for might be in the early stages of privatization for profit. (I loathe that practice.) My bike bounced underneath me as I focused on the dingbats of pink ribbon against the rolling page of browns and greens. I thought about the future of the trail instead of what future the trail might hold for me, a mountain biker not paying attention. At the first creek crossing, I hit a rock and crashed heavily on my right side. My shin thwacked a submerged rock, pain drilling sharply though the shock of cold October water flooding my lycra. I staggered to my feet, grunting and cursing, limped out of the water, wondering if I could make it back to the car. (Of course, I checked my bike, the universal sign that the mountain biker is not gonna die.) Eventually, I pedaled slowly down the trail, walking all creek crossings, cranked back to the car, and drove home. (When my daughter saw my leg, blood streaked down my shin into my sock, a creek mapped in red, she said: “I don’t like that” and marched into the house.)

Damn stuff.

I still have no idea what those ribbons meant, but that’s beside the point. The ribbons took me to a place I didn’t want to go on an otherwise blissful Friday alone in the woods on my bike with the woodpeckers, blackberries, and ferns. What this tells me is that I can’t escape the industry, that almost everything I experience holds the potential to be shaped by the industry in some way. It’s a lesson I’ve known for some time—industry is always with us—but I’ve never had the lesson articulated so well before. As one of my friends once said about me, I’m big but I’m slow.

And since I can see signs of gas development everywhere and project it where it isn’t, I wonder if my soul gets calloused to the industry the same way my butt gets calloused to a bike saddle in spring when I start logging big miles. What I mean is, as I get calloused to the industry or the saddle, what are the effects of my new tolerance? Regarding the bike, that tolerance is good for my legs and lungs and mind. Regarding the industry, I’m not so sure.

More on mapping gas soon.

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Defining Our Common Wealth

October 20, 2011

By Lilace

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted. See, I’ve fallen in love again and let other things slide. You remember how it is.

Taking a break at Hills Creek Lake

Me, I seem to fall hardest in autumn. I met Jimmy in September 1997, when I was 29 and knew in the first couple weeks it was forever. Last fall when my real estate agent brought me to the Whitney House for the first time, I was just as smitten. Jimmy and I bought it and were moved in by Halloween.

And this autumn, I have fallen more deeply in love with Pennsylvania. It’s not just that where we live now I have a sweeping view of hay fields and a small old cemetery against the distant hills (out front), and meadows of goldenrod and flaming sumac with winding paths mowed throughout (in back).  There’s the chickens too, of course. I could watch the chickens chase each other and the puppy in circles all day. No, it’s because I started getting out of my own yard and exploring what is just around the corner.

Hills Creek State Park is a few miles away. I was accustomed to thinking of the 407 acres in terms of my children—it has a great playground and in summer the lake and sandy beach are free. Since there’s no edge to drop off, I preferred it to the town pool while the kids were too young to swim. But recently I’ve discovered what a great playground it is for me. In a fit of determination, I registered for the annual Step Outdoors Tryathlon held at Hills Creek, thereby forcing myself to start training and get off my, er, front porch.

This Tryathlon (they spell it “try” to encourage first-timers like me) combined a 3 mile run, 2 mile paddle, and 9 mile bike ride on dirt roads. So I started riding the bike route among forests and farms, and fast walking the lakeside trail. The trail is mostly in mixed conifer and deciduous woods, with moist forest floors, gnarled roots, and seasonal creeks. Kingfishers rattled above and the prehistoric squawk of a heron made me peer through the branches to see it fly gracefully over the glassy water. I would be transported into an ancient place with a timeless sense of peace. I confess it amazed me how much more restorative it felt than walking my nice country road.

It did have a panoramic view of a drill rig on neighboring property, so close it seemed to rise out of the lake spillway. But it’s down now. And for a while a huge long swath adjacent to the park was cut open, stopping traffic and reminding me as I watched them lay the pipeline, of tendonitis surgery on my wrist. But that area is now covered, reseeded, and except for the gap in the trees where it runs through woods is not ugly or traffic-stopping anymore. Things change. It’s the lesson of the seasons, especially autumn with the leaves flaunting their transformations.

My first triathlon went well; even though I walked the “run” part, I took third place in the solo women’s category. People came from out of state for the event, and the camaraderie of folks enjoying the outdoors was as invigorating as the physical activity. Jimmy, who has a long history of competing in similar events, had been riding his bike(s) a lot too, getting away from the computer as much as possible, and training for his big cyclocross race last weekend in Carlisle, PA. It’s an autumn tradition for him.

This year as Jimmy went away for his big race, the kids and I participated in an event closer to home. Wanting to get them in on the fun, and hoping they were old enough to enjoy it, I signed us up for the Ives Run Trail Challenge. It’s a 4 mile course in nearby Ives Run Recreation Area surrounded by State Game Lands. Our seven-year-old son partnered up with an adult friend who wanted to introduce him to trail running, and I walked with our four-year-old daughter.

They both were the youngest participants, had a great time, and showed themselves what they could do. Our family turned a new leaf, one Jimmy and I have anticipated since having kids—they can now walk far enough and long enough for us to explore outdoors in the ways we love, leaving parking lots and trail heads far behind. This is why we chose to live in a place like Tioga County, where the sylvan aspects of Pennsylvania still predominate. The woods, lakes, streams, and accompanying wildlife are treasures worth more to us than any signing bonus or royalty check.

Early 1900's PA State Park beneficiaries

Intimately entwined with our state’s history of extractive industry (logging, tanneries, coal mining), is its history of state parks and recreation lands. Joseph T. Rothrock, the first Commissioner of Forestry in the early 1900’s, was a medical doctor as well as forester and developed camps in forest reserves for tuberculosis victims and others with respiratory illnesses. Later in the 1950’s, the new head of the Department of Forests and Waters (departments always morph and change names) set a goal of having every Pennsylvania resident no more than 25 miles from a state park. Though Maurice Goddard fell short of his goal, Pennsylvania now has one of the largest state park systems in the nation. And today the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and Tioga County Partnership for Community Health sponsor events in these public lands such as triathlons, trail runs, and other outings to improve the quality of life for Pennsylvanians and visitors.

Recently, Governor Corbett has talked of privatizing the state parks, taking a core part of our common wealth—one residents have supported with bond referendums and avidly utilized for over a century—and stripping it of protections meant to guard the long-term benefits of mental and physical health for state residents, as well as the value to wildlife. I don’t share some people’s faith in a free market; I feel sure that putting state parks in the for-profit sector will quickly degrade the resource, as economic values trump all others.

Corbett also quickly repealed former Gov. Rendell’s policy to limit gas drilling impact in state parks. Corbett says the policy was redundant; supporters say it allowed the state to manage (not ban) the drilling impact on tourism and recreation. An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette outlines the situation:

Pennsylvania has 117 state parks, 61 of them in the two-thirds of the state lying above the Marcellus Shale, a 380 million-year-old formation that might contain more than 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The mineral rights — including Marcellus gas deposits — under 85 percent of that park acreage are privately owned. Courts have ruled that the so-called “mineral estate” rights are superior to surface rights in Pennsylvania, and that the owners of underground mineral rights must be given reasonable access to develop those holdings, even when they lie under parks or other publicly owned land.

So even without privatizing state parks, Pennsylvanians must struggle with what the Marcellus Shale rush will mean to our public lands heritage. We must all be flexible as well as vigilant during the shifting season of this Marcellus Shale autumn. And when I get anxious about the changes, I head for the woods and wildlands that so many people have worked to conserve and protect. Ironically, in these stressful early years of the gas boom, we need the peace of deep forests and the negative ions produced by clear running streams more than ever as places to recharge.