by Lilace

May marks the opening of the Mansfield Growers Market, which will run every Friday through September. We’re in zone 5b so fresh produce of any kind is a reason to rejoice at the end of a winter that lasts basically half the year. Though this winter—especially March—was unnervingly warm, the crowds showed up for the first market as eager as in past years. April had brought enough frosts and freezes that the asparagus got temporarily zapped, and we had none for opening day. But spinach, turnips, lettuce, ramps, and rhubarb were the fresh goodies awaiting folks, along with the local lamb, chicken, pork, beef, rabbit, milk, cheese, maple syrup, baked goods, and crafts that are always in season.

Blue, white, and green tents sprang up on the lawn of St. James Episcopal Church like mushrooms after rain, and bright colored yarns, handmade aprons, hanging flower baskets, and banners decorated the block. Friends greeted friends, University students mingled with professors (some of them farmers in their “spare” time), and it didn’t matter if you knew the person standing next to you at the booth, you spoke to them. This was why we started the market in 2009, not just for good food but to grow community. And it’s worked magic.

In fact, you’d never guess we were in an industrial sacrifice zone.

Well, maybe you would if you were talking to Diane about what to plant in your garden and the local musician took a break. Then you’d become aware of the traffic just off your right shoulder, the grunts of brakes trying to stop huge residual waste and dump trucks because the light a block away at Main Street turned red. And if you tried to cross the street without walking that block to the light, well, I wouldn’t recommend that. Park behind the church, maybe in the bank’s lot. They don’t mind.

You would remember quickly, however, when you were driving back to your home, or friend’s house, or campground. The well pads and freshwater pits leveling hills and ruining topsoil (there goes the farmland) are hard to miss, though they are surrounded by beautiful country.

There is a refrain in the national song and dance about natural gas that it will lead to energy independence. All this while it’s being exported to the highest bidder, which is the way all business works. Why should this be any different? And the big player here in Tioga County is Shell Oil. I mean, they’re a Dutch Company, though they call this branch of their operations “Shell Appalachia.” Not that being from elsewhere makes them bad. I for one thank God that we in Tioga aren’t in the hands of Chesapeake Energy, an American Company.

But this sense that the natural gas play (how I love language!) is not just good for the country but our salvation leads to the attitude that some places need to suck it up and take one for the team. Stop whining. In fact, Penn State geosciences professor Terry Engelder, who gave the first estimate in 2008 of how much gas could be recovered from the Marcellus Shale, calls for Pennsylvanians to make a “necessary sacrifice” so Americans can continue living a lifestyle made possible only by huge amounts of fossil fuels.

So when a gas well blows up in Canton, a town about twenty-five miles away from Mansfield, or people nearby get fresh water delivered to them since their water well has been contaminated, it’s not news. It’s necessary sacrifice occurring in a national sacrifice zone. Says Amy Mall of Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC):

Pennsylvania has become a national sacrifice zone for natural gas development. It has seen more than its share of drinking water contamination, houses exploding, and destroyed landscapes and communities.

Last fall I took my seven-year-old son out for pizza before we saw a movie. I don’t remember what movie it was, but I remember the conversation I overheard in the restaurant.

Nearby an older man looked up from his dinner with a big smile when a young fella—maybe late twenties, early thirties—came over to say hello. The young man had on an industry shirt—I don’t remember which company. By their conversation it was clear they’d known each other a long time. I imagine the older man might have watched the young guy grow up. Then the older man asked him about work and how could he find out when they’d be drilling on his parcel? When would the royalty checks start coming? The young guy described the web site and how to find out the information. Then they got to talking about how many wells they’d drilled this year, which is nothing, the young guy said, compared to how many are planned for this area.

Every time I hear a version of this the number or ratio is a little different, but it’s always horrifying. What was startling to me is that neither of these men, who’d clearly lived here longer than I had, who had roots here, these men were not horrified in the least.

The older man shook his head a little and said something like, “That’s hard to imagine.”

“Yeah,” the younger guy agreed, “in five or ten years we won’t recognize this place. But I’ll have made my money and moved away by then.”

And they laughed.

Even the older guy laughed who was at a very different stage in his life, one where he probably wasn’t moving anywhere, was probably looking for the money to help with retirement or to hold onto the farm. The young guy likely had a wife, maybe kids, and this was his big break. But as I stared hard at the red and white plastic tablecloth I couldn’t stop thinking about how easily he was ready to sacrifice this place. In his mind, it was already gone. And apparently all the people with it.

It hit me then. When people say “sacrifice zones” they are thinking of space on a map, the way explorers from Europe viewed the new world. This is the frontier of natural gas. But like the new world, this frontier is inhabited. And even though, unlike with the Native Americans, our homes, our faces, look like those of the explorers, we are invisible. That younger man had merely changed his allegiance, aligning himself with the powerful in a bid for security and identity.

I don’t tell this story to point fingers at these two men, who I bet wouldn’t hesitate to help me get my car out of a ditch. They illustrate a larger problem. It’s not a problem language can fix, but there is a way in which choosing and rejecting terms is both empowering and makes the invisible visible. So I submit to you that this is not a national sacrifice zone. We are a national sacrifice community.

Yet on the local level, the view shifts. When I look around the market green on Fridays, I see people enjoying where they live and taking pride in what our small town and the surrounding area has to offer. On days like this I am hyper aware of the many ways our quality of life is exceptional—good local food of a wide variety, public schools with reasonable class sizes, multiple state parks within a half hour that do not charge admission, a University with humanities programs that provide community concerts, lectures, readings, and art exhibits. Oh, and a bike shop, yoga studio, and brewery that match any you’ll find in metropolitan areas.

I just want to say, loud and clear, to everyone out there in the nation who maybe has heard of the debate over fracking or the natural gas rush going on elsewhere—this is the kind of place being sacrificed for more years of an unsustainable dream and the myth of energy independence. See us. Speak up. Because if it can happen to Pennsylvanians, like it’s been happening to folks in Wyoming and Texas before us, then it can happen to your community next.

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.