Sierra Club Testifies at House Democratic Policy Committee Hearing on
Bill to Empower Citizens to Protect Public Lands
Joanne Kilgour, Director, Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter, 717-232-0101, 412-965-9973 (c)
Williamsport, PA – At today’s House Democratic Policy Committee Hearing in Williamsport, Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter Director Joanne Kilgour testified in support of Rep. Mirabito’s HB 2318, legislation to empower citizens to protect the public lands of the Commonwealth. Co-sponsors of bill include Representatives Kotik, Thomas, McGeehan, Caltagirone, Painter, Carroll, Vitali, Murt, McCarter, Cohen, Pashinski, McNeill, and Dean.
“The public is an essential stakeholder in environmental decision-making regarding lands held in the public trust by the Commonwealth,” said Joanne Kilgour, Director of the Sierra Club PA Chapter. “It is refreshing to see legislation that will give weight to the public voice in protecting our state forests and which sets forth a framework for a meaningful, formal public participation process with through environmental review,” continued Kilgour.
Ms. Kilgour’s testimony follows.
HOUSE DEMOCRATIC POLICY COMMITTEE HEARING – JULY 28, 2014
TESTIMONY OF JOANNE KILGOUR, DIRECTOR OF THE SIERRA CLUB PENNSYLVANIA CHAPTER ON BEHALF OF OUR MORE THAN 24,500 MEMBERS
Good afternoon. First, I would like to thank Chairman Sturla, Chairman Vitali, and the members of this committee for the opportunity to participate in this important hearing. I would also like to thank Rep. Mirabito and the co-sponsors of HB 2318 for your leadership in sponsoring legislation that will empower citizens to protect the public lands of the Commonwealth.
My name is Joanne Kilgour and I am the Director of the Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter. Our Chapter has more than 24,500 members statewide, with 10 volunteer-led groups encompassing each region of the Commonwealth. Our members are avid, year-round users of Pennsylvania state lands, and on any given week you are likely to find several Sierra Club volunteer-guided outings in state parks, forests, or game lands. We are, as our mission suggests, exploring, enjoying, and protecting the wild places of Pennsylvania.
In this Commonwealth, our state parks host 38 million visitors each year and contribute $1.2 billion per year to the state economy, providing more than 13,000 quality jobs. Beyond state parks, the outdoor recreation industry in Pennsylvania represents $21.5 billion in annual consumer spending, 219,000 direct Pennsylvania jobs, $7.2 billion in wages and salaries, and $1.6 billion in state and local tax revenue. This significant benefit to the Commonwealth is a direct result of use by the public for fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, paddling, picnicking, sightseeing, and bird watching. The value to the state that is realized through public exploration, enjoyment, and protection of our shared lands demonstrates that we are key stakeholders who should have a voice in decisions made about the future of the natural places so integral to our way of life.
Last year, my predecessor Jeff Schmidt testified at a hearing similar to today’s, during which he and other witnesses spoke out with a formal request for legislation that would compel public agencies such as the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to engage the public in decisions related to the management of our shared lands. Since that time, DCNR’s negotiations with Anadarko regarding natural gas development in the Loyalsock State Forest have proceeded without a formal commitment to allow public access to, and input on, a development plan or surface disturbance management agreement before those documents are finalized; DCNR has published a Shale-Gas Monitoring Report that included a survey of certain recreational users but did not enable formal public comment or information-sharing prior to publication; and the State Auditor General released a report highlighting the unpreparedness and inadequacy of the Department of Environmental Protection in documenting and responding to public complaints about natural gas development.
Since that May 2013 hearing of this Committee, it has only become clearer that the General Assembly of Pennsylvania, guided by the leadership of this Committee, must pass legislation to empower its citizens to protect the shared public lands of the Commonwealth. We recognize that DCNR and other public agencies acting as the trustees of our shared public resources do not have the capacity to be in every corner of every state park or forest. We also recognize that the public – state forest and park users – can help to supplement agency staff and provide valuable insights into the appropriate management of these resources. Now more than ever the role of the Commonwealth and its agencies as a public trustee of these shared lands demands the inclusion of a formal role for the public in environmental decision-making.
The interrelation of the citizens of Pennsylvania and the public lands of the Commonwealth is not only reflected in the mission of environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, but is set forth in Article 1 Section 27 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which states that:
The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.
The legislation at issue in today’s hearing, House Bill 2318, provides a mechanism for implementing citizen participation under the Environment Rights Amendment. Legally required public participation and clearly outlined standards for public input will enhance the likelihood that environmental rights and public trust issues will be considered before a decision is made regarding natural gas development on public lands. Therefore, HB 2318 will enhance the probability that the amendment will actually be followed and that the on-the-ground decisions of our public agencies will be in line with the guarantees of our constitution. Formal public input into decisions made about natural gas development on state lands will also reduce the likelihood of expensive and time consuming litigation. Finally, HB 2318 would codify processes to give equal weight to public perspectives in decision-making about the future of
public lands, creating an opportunity to creatively resolve differences in approach before parties get locked into positions that can only be resolved through litigation.
For example, in 2002 DCNR under the Ridge Administration announced a plan to lease more than half a million acres of state forest land for natural gas development with drilling into the Trenton Black River formation, a reserve two to three miles below the surface. The proposal was met with strong opposition from the public, a reaction so significant that Secretary Oliver agreed to open the process to formal public participation. DCNR held six public hearings and accepted a total of nearly 5,000 comments. After consideration of public input and concern, the Department reduced the lease sale to less than half of what it originally proposed and strengthened lease requirements such as setbacks and waiver provisions. Without this formal process, the Department could have hastily leased hundreds of thousands of acres that were unsuitable for such development and engaged in contracts more permissive than appropriate to adequately protect public lands. We support a meaningful, formal public participation process, which includes a thorough environmental review.
In conclusion, HB 2318 will provide a necessary framework for inclusion of the public in decision-making regarding natural gas development on state lands. Requiring public participation through legislation will help to ensure that our agencies are upholding their responsibility as public trustees and aid in the avoidance of hasty decisions that may not be in the public interest as well as costly litigation. I applaud the effort of Representative Mirabito and look forward to working with you all to ensure the passage of a strong HB 2318, for my future and for generations of public lands explorers to come. Thank you.”