Posts

Starved Rock State Park by Michelle McCray

How Frac Sand Mining is Altering an Economy Dependent on Starved Rock State Park, IL

An Ottawa, IL resident’s letter to U.S. Silica regarding how the firm’s “frac” sand mines adjacent to Starved Rock State Park will alter the local economy.

Starved Rock State Park

As is so often the case, we find that those things we have taken most for granted are usually the things we miss most when they are gone. The list of what our nation has lost to industrial and commercial concerns couldn’t possibly be compiled in a single article. The short-sighted habits of economic progress have often led to long-term loss and ecologic disaster. That is why it took a man like Abraham Lincoln, a man of long-term vision and wisdom, to sign into existence our first national park, preserving for antiquity what surely would have been lost to our American penchant for development and overuse.

With that in mind, I have always found it amazing how the gears of our own local and state governments have continually chosen the economic path of least resistance and allowed the areas surrounding Starved Rock State Park to be ravaged and destroyed for what is, ultimately, minimal gain. I am no expert but I suspect it could be argued that a full 1/3 of LaSalle County’s economic engine is funded by the simple existence of Starved Rock State Park. Beyond the 2 million plus visitors to the park each year, it cannot be forgotten that nearly every municipality in LaSalle County has directly or indirectly benefited from the countless number of businesses that prosper from the magnetism of the park’s tranquil canyons.

Photos by Michelle McCray of McCray Photography.

Preservation Not Development

As the 4-year battle with Mississippi Sand over development of the Ernat property has proved, there are many rational souls who truly acknowledge the importance of maintaining a healthy and productive park environment. With the recent sale of the Ernat property to U.S. Silica, we are again confronted with the prospect of irrational development of the eastern boundaries of Starved Rock State Park.

Given the gravity of these decisions, I would like to share a letter recently sent on behalf of many of those who have fought so hard and so long for preservation of that same eastern boundary. This letter was sent to Brian Shinn, CEO of U.S. Silica Holdings, INC. (SLCA) in Frederick, Maryland nearly a month ago, and we have yet to receive a response. In sharing this information on FracTracker’s website, I hope this letter will contribute to further discussion among our local representatives over a far more long-term vision of what LaSalle County wishes to be and what qualities, both environmental and economic, that it wishes to maintain and protect:

Letter to US Silica

Dear Mr. Shinn,

I am writing this letter on behalf of dozens of LaSalle County, Illinois residents who have, for the past several years, been intimately involved in the active pursuit of rational use and conservation of our local natural environment. As I am sure you are aware, the debate over use of the Ernat property as a functional sand mining operation has been a long and hard-fought battle. Years of litigation by the Sierra Club and other local environmental groups helped stall it’s development by Mississippi Sand, and have now led to the sale of the Ernat acreage to U.S. Silica. As irrational as the previous proposals were, the sale putting that acreage under your control has not lessened our concerns over the damaging use of that property as it relates to historic Highway 71 and the entire Starved Rock State Park area.

Obviously, sand mining operations have been a long-standing component of LaSalle County economics. Decades of mining under U.S. Silica supervision have not substantially reduced the quality of life for county residents or the natural environment as a whole. However, as can be specified by many local experts, the development and spoilage of the Ernat property will most certainly have longstanding and drastic impacts on both the ecology of Starved Rock State Park and the economic engine that it sustains. Starved Rock State Park attracts over 2 million visitors each year, with an estimated half million visitors using the Hwy. 71 entrance paralleling the Ernat farm as their main gateway into the park. The Ernat property’s river frontage has long been the tranquil eastern entry into the Illinois Canyon area, as well as an active nesting site for countless birds amidst bountiful wetlands and flat, open prairies. The Ernat property’s shared access to Horseshoe Creek has also made it essential to the entire Illinois Canyon ecosystem within the park. In short, any development of this property will most certainly have long-term negative impacts on both the economics and ecology of the Illinois River Basin.

In writing this letter, we are hoping that U.S. Silica, under your guidance, may consider the opportunity to preserve this indispensable parcel of land and examine ways in which U.S. Silica might make this land available as a gift or negotiated property to the state of Illinois. It would certainly be an important addition to the entire Starved Rock State Park area. I have included the signatures of many of our own local coalition. We hope you will consider the long-term impacts that this development would have to one of Illinois premier natural areas. Thank you.

Inspiring Action

I hope those who have signed this letter will be inspired to further action, and those who have not will reconsider their years of inaction. The natural heritage and local economies of our entire Illinois River Basin are depending on it.

Sincerely,

Paul Wheeler

Only when the last tree has died…
and the last river been poisoned…
and the last fish been caught…
will we realize we cannot eat money.

An old Cree Indian saying

Sand Mining Photos

For additional photos from Illinois, explore our online photo album.


Mr. Wheeler grew up in Oak Lawn, IL and now lives with his wife and daughter in the Ottawa, IL area and is a para-educator.

Feature image by Michelle McCray of McCray Photography.

Shale Gas Development on Public Lands

By Mark Szybist and George Jugovic, Jr., PennFuture Guest Authors

Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture) and FracTracker Alliance have collaborated to create a unique GIS map that enables the public to investigate how shale gas development is changing the face of our public lands. The map allows viewers to see, in one place:

  • Pennsylvania’s State Forests, Parks and Game Lands;
  • State Forest tracts containing active oil and gas leases;
  • State Forest areas where the oil and gas rights have been “severed” from the surface lands and are owned by third parties;
  • State Forest lands that are to be protected for recreational use under the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund Act;
  • The location of unconventional shale gas wells that have been drilled on State Forest and State Game Lands; and
  • The boundaries of watersheds that contain one or more High Quality or Exceptional Value streams.

The goal of this project was to develop a resource that would highlight the relationship between unconventional shale gas development and public resources that the State holds in trust for Pennsylvania’s citizens under Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. It is our hope that the map will be useful to citizens, conservation groups and others in planning educational, advocacy, and recreational activities.

The Public Lands Map


A full screen version of The Public Lands Map can be found here.

Background

Public lands held in trust by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for citizens of the state are managed by various state agencies and commissions. The vast majority of State lands, though, are managed by just two bodies – the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC). Under Act 147 of 2012, the Department of General Services has the authority to lease other lands controlled by the state. In recent years, DCNR and the PGC have made liberal use of their powers to lease State lands for oil and gas development.

DCNR: State Forests, State Parks, and Publicly Owned Streambeds

The DCNR manages approximately 2.2 million acres of State Forest lands and 283,000 acres of State Park lands, as well as many miles of publicly owned streambeds. The Conservation and Natural Resources Act (CNRA) authorizes DCNR to develop oil, gas and other minerals under these lands, so long as the state controls those mineral rights. In some cases, separate persons or entities own the surface of the land and mineral rights. Where DCNR does not control the mineral rights, the owners of the oil and gas have the ability to make reasonable use of the land surface for mineral extraction, subject to restrictions in their property deeds.

Before the start of the Marcellus era, the DCNR leased about 153,268 acres of State Forest lands for mineral development. These leases largely allowed the drilling of “conventional” shallow vertical gas wells. Between 2008 and 2010, the DCNR, under Governor Ed Rendell, leased another 102,679 acres of public lands for natural gas development – but this time the leases were for the drilling of horizontal wells in “unconventional” shale formations using high-volume hydraulic fracturing.

Following the lease sale, DCNR published a report on October 26, 2010 that stated any further gas leasing of State Forest Lands would jeopardize the sustainability of the resource. As a result, Governor Rendell signed Executive Order 2010-05, which placed a moratorium on the sale of any additional leases for oil and gas development on lands “owned and managed by DCNR.

On May 23, 2014, Governor Tom Corbett revoked Governor Rendell’s moratorium, and issued a new Executive Order that allowed the issuance of additional leases for gas development beneath State Lands so long as the leases did not entail “additional surface disturbance on State Forest or State Park lands.” Ultimately, Governor Corbett’s DCNR did not enter into any leases under the new Order. However, between January 2011 and January 2015, Governor Corbett’s DCNR did issue leases for gas extraction beneath a number of publicly owned streambeds, which, according to the Post-Gazette, raised $19 million. Governor Corbett’s DCNR also renewed at least one State Forest lease that otherwise would have expired.

On January 29, 2015, Governor Tom Wolf issued another Executive Order on the matter, which re-established a moratorium on the leasing of State Park and State Forest lands “subject to future advice and recommendations by DCNR.” The Order allows for the continued leasing of publicly owned streambeds. As of the publication of this blog, the DCNR is fighting two lawsuits concerning the leasing of the lands it manages, one by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation and one by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

Drilling in Loyalsock State Forest, PA. Photo by Pete Stern 2013

Drilling in Loyalsock State Forest, PA. Photo by Pete Stern 2013.

PGC: State Game Lands

The PGC manages more than 1.5 million acres of State Game Lands that it may lease for gas development under the Pennsylvania Game and Wildlife Code. The PGC can also exchange mineral rights beneath State Game Lands for “suitable lands having an equal or greater value.” To date, the PGC has entered into surface and non-surface leases (technically, cooperative agreements for the exercise of oil and gas production rights) for natural gas development totaling 92,000 acres, of which about 45,000 acres were leased since 2008.

Land and Water Conservation Fund Act Lands

The LWCF Act is a federal law administered by the National Park Service (NPS) that authorizes federal grants to state and local governments for “outdoor recreation.” When a state accepts money for a recreational project, it agrees to protect the recreational value of the area supported by the grant. If the state later decides to take or allow actions that would “convert” parts of the protected area to a non-recreational use (1) the state must seek prior approval from the NPS, and (2) the NPS must perform an environmental assessment of the proposed conversion under the National Environmental Policy Act. The NPS may approve a conversion of LWCF-supported lands only if those lands will be replaced with “other recreation properties of at least equal fair market value and of reasonably equivalent usefulness and location.”

Between 1978 and 1986, Pennsylvania received three LWCF grants (Project Numbers 42-00580, 42-01235, and 42-01351) to support recreational opportunities on State Forest lands. Most of the money was used to improve roads in various State Forests to improve access for hunters, hikers and anglers. The LWCF layer on the Public Lands map represents those areas that Pennsylvania agreed to protect in exchange for these grants.

In 2009 and 2010, Pennsylvania entered into leases opening up about 11,718 acres of LWCF-protected areas to unconventional gas development. On the map, these areas can be highlighted by selecting “Land and Water Conservation Fund Lands” and “SF Lands – DCNR Leases”; the purplish, overlapping areas represent the leased LWCF lands.

Governor Corbett’s DCNR refused to recognize that shale gas development on public lands constituted a “conversion” under the LWCF Act. The Sierra Club was the first to identify this problem in a 2011 letter to the NPS and the DCNR. That letter requested, among other things, that the NPS formally determine the extent to which DCNR leasing of LWCF-protected State Forest lands has violated the LWCF Act. Nearly four years later, the NPS has yet to determine whether drilling and fracking of unconventional gas wells and construction of the necessary support structures constitutes a “conversion” and loss of recreational opportunities under the LWCF Act.

Old Loggers Path

Old Loggers Path, a favorite among hikers

A Note on the Map Layers

The sources of the GIS layers in the Public Lands map are explained in the “Details” section of the map. For the most part, PennFuture and FracTracker obtained or created the layers from public sources and through open records requests to the DCNR. In all cases, the layers came from the DCNR with a disclaimer as to the accuracy of the data and a warning about relying on the data.

GIS layers that are not currently on the map, but that this project hopes to add, include:

  • State Game Lands that have been leased for drilling;
  • State Park and Game Lands where the oil and gas rights have been “severed” and not controlled by the State;
  • Publicly owned streambeds that the State has leased for oil and gas development;
  • Public lands containing areas of significant ecologic value; and
  • Compressor stations, natural gas and water pipelines, and fresh water and wastewater impoundments.

Persons having access to this data are invited to contact PennFuture or FracTracker.

Songbird Nurseries of Pennsylvania

Guest Blog by Paul T. Zeph, Director of Conservation for Audubon Pennsylvania

Millions of small, beautiful, colorful songbirds that live in the tropics for most of the year venture north each spring to Pennsylvania to nest in our deep, quiet forests—forests that are now in danger of being fracked apart into industrial zones of natural gas extraction.

Pennsylvania’s forests provide nesting habitat for 17% of the world’s Scarlet Tanagers. Photo courtesy of the PA Gaming Commission.

Pennsylvania’s forests provide nesting habitat for 17% of the world’s Scarlet Tanagers. Photo by Jake Dingel, via the PA Game Commission.

The names of these birds are often described by their vibrant colors:  Black-throated Blue Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Cerulean Warbler, or Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Here, in the deep remnants of Penn’s Woods, they find an abundance of caterpillars and other insects that are critical protein for raising baby birds. Once the young are fledged and finding food on their own, the parents and juveniles head back south in early fall to their “non-breeding” habitat, which is more accurately called the Neotropics; that is, the New World tropics of the Caribbean, Central America and South America.

Most of these Neotropical migrants cannot nest successfully in small woodlots or fragmented forests, and depend upon large, undisturbed tracts of woodland that we call “core” forests.  These are forests that are at least 300 feet from a permanent edge – such as a road, utility corridor, or housing development.  Pennsylvania still has some very large forest blocks, primarily in the northern tier of the state, that serve as bird “nurseries”—places where the nest density is high and many species are successfully fledging young.

A recently-completed Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas is undergoing analysis by many researchers, and the data is helping us to identify the “best of the best” places in the state needed to sustain populations of our Neotropical visitors, for which we have a North American responsibility.  Not surprisingly, these quiet, large blocks of forest are also favorite places for humans to use for passive recreation, relaxation, and spiritual renewal.  If you want a quiet, peaceful place to escape the modern world for a weekend, look for places frequented in June by Blackburnian Warblers or Blue-headed Vireos.


Unconventional drilling and key forest songbird habitat in Pennsylvania. To access the legend, layer descriptions, and other tools, click on the expanding arrows icon in the top-right corner of the map.

Since many populations of our Neotropical species have been dramatically declining over the past 50 years, we need to protect as much nesting habitat as possible.  In 100 years, we will probably see many species disappear from Pennsylvania altogether due to fragmentation and climate change.  Our northern forest blocks may be a last refuge for a number of bird and other animal species that cannot survive in our sprawling suburbs or the ecological changes that will come with a warming planet.

Extensive gas infrastructure in forested Pennsylvania land. Photo by Pete Stern, 2013.

Extensive gas infrastructure in forested Pennsylvania land. Photo by Pete Stern, 2013.

Fracking is a heavily industrialized activity that not only causes short-term fragmentation, noise, and ecological disruption, but can lead to long-term ecological collapse of healthy, intact forest blocks.  Birds are only one of many types of animals that are impacted by the vast array of fracking infrastructure that is becoming all-too-common in our state’s quiet and shady bird nurseries, trout streams, and recreation areas:  widened roads letting in sunlight and nest predators; long, wide pipelines creating miles of permanent edge; thousands of acres of forest floor buried under compacted gravel pads; rain events carrying road and well pad gravel into sensitive headwater streams, burying aquatic life.

We have precious few public lands left in Pennsylvania that have not been leased for mineral extraction.  We must do all that we can to prevent leasing of lands where the state owns the mineral rights; and, where the rights are severed and owned by another, we must find compromises and solutions that keep as much of the forest intact as possible.