Trout Unlimited’s aim is cooperation in gas lands

LEWISTOWN – If you can’t beat’em, join’em.

That’s not the position you’d expect an advocacy group to stake in a debate, but it’s not far off from the position Trout Unlimited has taken in the Marcellus shale issue in northern Pennsylvania.

Paula Piatt, a sportsmen organizer for the group based in the state’s northern tier, discussed the issues tied to gas exploration that impact outdoor activities in a visit to the Penns Creek chapter of Trout Unlimited Tuesday.

She told the dozen or so members and guests assembled at the Rec Park Community Center that Trout Unlimited recognizes the need for energy development, and wants to cooperate with energy companies in an effort to mitigate the environmental impact.

The organization is trying to vest a sportsmen’s interest in the debate.

“Everybody has a different take on it. We looked at the whole picture and we realized there’s nobody really speaking for the sportsmen,” she said.

Although Trout unlimited is primarily focused on coldwater conservation, she said, “We really needed to look at all sportsmen, hunters and fishermen alike, because once you get out there the habitat is all interconnected.”

Habitat protection is a major concern.

“Obviously it causes huge problems, especially with some of the smaller native brook trout streams,” she said. “The erosion leads to sedimentation, which covers up spawning beds, chokes out the insect life in the stream, which eventually chokes out the fish.”

The biggest impact happens when roads are widened and streams crossed; some companies take steps to mitigate damage, but these issues are best addressed through landowners, she said.

“We’re not going to tell them, ‘Don’t lease it.’ We’re not going to tell them, ‘Don’t drill.’ We’re going to say, ‘Here’s the right way to do it,'” she said.

Some Trout Unlimited chapters are part of the Sportsmen Alliance for Marcellus Conservation, which advocates repeal of gas industry exemptions under various environmental protection laws. Among other things, the alliance wants to see better regulation of water withdrawals – it takes 3 to 8 million gallons to hydraulically fracture a well, Piatt said – and limit exploration activities at key times during the year, such as opening days for hunting and breeding periods.

She said that sedimentation, erosion and stream crossings can be avoided, and that sportsmen’s groups are mindful of the past, when activities such as strip mining left a wake of environmental damage.

“A lot of TU chapters have worked to reclaim those streams, and that’s what we want to get ahead of,” Piatt said. “We’re just looking to work with the companies and the landowners.”

To monitor the habitat, Trout Unlimited launched the Coldwater Conservation Corps water quality program in 2010, and the group has educated thousands of sportsmen in that time.

One interesting thing Piatt told the local chapter is that the gas leasing rights may be out of the hands of public agencies even on public lands. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources does own the rights for about 85 percent of the forests it manages, she said, but the Pennsylvania Game Commission owns just 30 percent of the rights to its lands.

“You can separate the oil, gas and mineral rights from the surface rights in Pennsylvania,” she explained. “So what happened over the years is the Game Commission bought land – they bought the surface rights, but not the subsurface rights.”

Ultimately, she said, it’s about common goals – those of the groups and agencies that have oversight over the environment, but also those who realize a need for energy growth.

“When you think about it, they’re not drilling in downtown State College. They’re drilling in our playground,” she said. “It’s really all about responsible energy development for us. I drove here in a car. I cook my dinner on a stove. We need that energy in this country. But there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it.”

Along with Marcellus shale issues, Piatt touched on a few bills being considered in the legislature that would impact Trout Unlimited’s primary mission.

One, which was set to leave committee Wednesday, would eliminate the ability of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (and the Game Commission) to designate a species as threatened or endangered, or designate Wild Trout Waters, without approval from a non-scientific, legislative review process.

Another would change rules in a way that could put streams at risk of erosion and cut bank stabilization, she said.