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Keeping Up With Sustainability In Pennsylvania's Working State Forests

A tanker truck hauling drilling wastewater rumbles by on a gravel road. The road parallels Pine Bottom Run, a fast moving waterway in Tiadaghton State Forest in north central Pennsylvania. This morning, two foresters with DCNR are busy testing the stream.

Ben Gamble and Luke Ulsa are collecting baseline information on streams near Marcellus gas sites. Well pads were just built on the ridge above Pine Bottom. Around 400 wells are on state forest land, with as many as 20,000 wells projected in the next 30 years. So far, Gamble says there are no signs of trouble.

"The streams we've sampled have been of excellent quality," said Gamble.

Gamble and Ulsa are part of a new team that will monitor forest health as deep shale drilling expands in public forests. The state granted money for extra monitoring after the forests were audited last year by the independent Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Pennsylvania's forest system has been certified by the Council as sustainably managed for 12 years. That's longer than any public forest in the country. FSC certification focuses on how to manage and harvest sustainably while keeping forest ecosystems in good shape.

"A very strong standard," said Dan Devlin, who Directs DCNR's Bureau of Forestry. "The fact that we're able to meet that standard states that we are considering the ecosystem very clearly in terms of our management efforts."

Devlin said his agency is working hard to maintain its certification during this new influx of gas development. Besides additional monitoring, the bureau is identifying areas where extra safeguards will be put in place for the most diverse, species-rich sites in the forests. The bureau has also written new drilling leases that Devlin says go far beyond Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) regulations.

"DEP is going to want to make sure that erosion, sedimentation controls are put in place, whereas we will want to see certain wildlife habitat features will be put on the site," Devlin said. "Maybe closed out different in terms of contours, what we do in terms of top soils."

The Bureau's new leases cover about 400,000 acres of state forest land. Another 300,000 acres are under lease in areas of the forest where the state doesn't own the mineral rights. Environmental groups have complained that state foresters won't be able to control what happens on the surface in these areas. But to date, SmartWood, the group that audits forests for the Forest Stewardship Council, is satisfied with the way the Bureau is handling things. Dave Bubser is Smart Wood's U.S. Region Manager.

"I can say without a doubt that the Bureau so far has been very transparent, very professional and very diligent in the way they've addressed the challenge of managing their forest to multiple uses and to conforming with the standard," Bubser said.

SmartWood reviews management records and documents before they do a yearly audit. On site, auditors who are forestry experts spend the bulk of their time in the woods. They ask managers very pointed questions about meeting dozens of environmental, social and economic requirements for certification. Over the past decade, Mike Eckley, a Nature Conservancy forester, has worked closely with the Bureau of Forestry. He said certification has made the agency a better steward of Pennsylvania's forests.

"I've seen tremendous improvements in terms of internal and external communication with their key partners including the Nature Conservancy," Eckley said. "And I've seen progress in terms of their planning, and it's resulted in a more effective, adaptive management approach on the ground."

FSC certification has also given the state entre into the "green wood" market, which puts about half a billion dollars into Pennsylvania's economy each year.

Nearly all of the certified sustainably harvested wood in Pennsylvania comes from state forests. Sustainably harvested wood is used in eco-friendly buildings, paper products, furniture, even guitars.

Martin Guitar, one of the most famous guitar makers in the world, uses certified Pennsylvania black cherry wood in some of their sustainable instruments. At Martin's factory in Nazareth, PA, Brian Bailey is hand-sanding the cherry wood sides of a guitar body. It's one of about 150 certified guitars Martin makes a year.

"We file it down and go over it with a fine file to make it real smooth," Bailey said. "It's hardwood and it works very easily."

Upstairs in the factory's offices, Linda Davis-Wallen says that Martin is trying to move musicians away from rare woods that are traditionally used for guitars. Davis-Wallen has been buying wood for this company for three decades. She firmly believes sustainably harvested wood like black cherry is the future of Martin Guitar, a 178-year-old manufacturer.

"The woods that are used traditionally for guitars are becoming less and less available," she said. "If we want to make wooden guitars for another 178 years we've got to use the woods that are available to us, and we've got to maintain those forests in a sustainable way so that we can keep doing it."

Mark Hoffman also connects good forest management to his ability to make a living. He's one of the hundreds of business people who depend on the state's parks and forests for tourism. Hoffman owns a lodge next to state forest land where Marcellus gas drilling is really picking up.

"It's a destination location," he said. "People are coming here for the beauty of the forest, to go hiking. They're coming here to go hunting. How many people will we lose, and can we ever get those people back if they stop coming? It's very scary."

State foresters are waiting to see if more land will be leased for gas development by Governor Corbett. A leasing moratorium was put in place by Ed Rendell when a DCNR study concluded that extra "surface disturbance would change the wild character and ecology" of the state forests. Dan Devlin said there's a lot to consider.

"Threatened or endangered species, forest fragmentation, water quality; those are certainly the areas that we would be most concerned with if we did any future leasing of state forest land," Devlin said.

To keep its certification, only two percent of state forest land can be converted to industrial use in any five year period. No doubt, SmartWood auditors will be watching.