Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Sierra Club testimony on the forced resignation of John Norbeck, Director of PA State Parks


Jeff Schmidt


I would like to thank the members of the House Democratic Policy Committee for scheduling today's hearing.  As you know, the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee has formal oversight jurisdiction over the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.  However the Majority Chairman has failed to respond to requests by Committee members and the public to investigate the actions of DCNR in light of the forced resignation of the Director of State Parks, and the major policy changes that are occurring in DCNR with no public knowledge or input.

I am here today, on behalf of the Sierra Club's more than 24,000 members in Pennsylvania.  Throughout the Commonwealth, our members spend much of their free time enjoying our beautiful state parks and forests.  Our members and their friends and families hike, paddle, fish, hunt, camp and just simply relax on these lands that are supposed to be held in trust for their use and enjoyment.  Our members benefit from the clean drinking water that flows from our public lands. However, increasingly, these traditional users of our public lands are being displaced by those who only wish to exploit our public lands for their commercial profits. 

The history of Pennsylvania's public lands management includes visionaries such as Governor Gifford Pinchot and DER Secretary Maurice "Doc" Goddard.  They knew that it was important to set aside protected lands for use by future generations.  They knew that parks and forests could protect headwaters to provide clean drinking water supplies for millions.  They understood the importance of large blocks of unfragmented land to serve as habitat for wide variety of wildlife species.   Because of their leadership, we have 2.1 million acres of state forest land and approaching 300,000 acres of state park lands.  The management philosophy they established placed conservation of our natural systems at the heart of land use decision-making.  Goddard appointed conservation professionals to manage the parks and forests.  Doc Goddard wanted to keep our parks accessible to people, and set a goal to establish a state park within 25 miles of every Pennsylvanian.  He got the support of a succession of Republican and Democratic governors to build the state park system.  Today, we are the beneficiaries of his legacy, and the bipartisan cooperation that made it possible.   

The conservation legacy of Pinchot and Goddard are threatened by a new breed of decision-makers.  These are people who want to exploit our state parks for short-term profit, at the expense of the environment and the public.  And they are willing to roll over anyone who gets in their way.  One of the prominent casualties in this change in management goals for our public lands is John Norbeck, who until last week, was the Director of State Parks.  Mr. Norbeck, who spent 29 years managing state parks in Maryland, came to Pennsylvania to become Director of State Parks in 2006.  Under his leadership, the 120-unit Pennsylvania State Park system won the Gold Medal for excellence in Park and Recreation Management in 2009.    On October 1, Mr. Norbeck received a termination letter that told him he had an option to resign.  John Norbeck's forced resignation was effective last Friday, October 19.   

Why was Mr. Norbeck terminated?  In the last year, there has been mounting pressure to increase the revenue from state parks.   While the Corbett administration blocked passage of a severance tax on natural gas drilling, it has cut traditional sources of funding for DEP and DCNR's environmental programs, including parks and forests.   DCNR management is under pressure to generate more revenue to fill the hole that could have been filled by a severance tax.  Mr. Norbeck is one of the conservation professionals who refused to alter park management policies to accommodate the new drive for revenues.  He paid the price.

Examples of Mr. Norbeck's efforts to hold the line on conservation principles, some of which were documented in an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette include:

-  COMMERCIAL LOGGING of state parks was raised by Mr. Norbeck's immediate superior Deputy Secretary for Parks and Forests Ellen Ferretti.  Ms. Ferretti wanted to open Ricketts Glen State Park to commercial timber harvesting, but Mr. Norbeck disagreed, pointing out it was against DCNR policy, and that the revenue would be minimal.  Ricketts Glen includes one of the largest remaining old growth stands of forest in Pennsylvania.

-  COMMERCIAL MINING at Laurel Ridge State Park.  Amerikohl executives have been pressuring DCNR to allow them to extend a nearby mine into the state park to exploit a limestone deposit there.  Twice Amerikohl was told no, that it is against DCNR policy to mine in state parks.   Amerikohl got a third meeting with DCNR scheduled, to occur after Mr. Norbeck's termination.  At this time, we do not know the outcome of Amerikohl's most recent meeting.   As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article pointed out, Amerikohl executives contributed more than $32,000 to Governor Corbett's political campaigns. 

-  GAS DRILLING in state parks.  Unfortunately, when land was acquired for many of our state parks, the associated mineral rights were not acquired.  Thus, mineral rights for approximately 80% of state park lands are severed, and in private hands.  DCNR had a policy to try to purchase mineral rights for DCNR lands when possible, using funding from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund.   However, the Corbett administration has diverted O & G Lease Fund money to the state's General Fund.  Administration spokepersons have said that they will be unable to prevent drilling on park lands where they don't own the mineral rights.   One of the parks in the cross-hairs of the drilling industry is Ohiopyle State Park, in southwestern PA.  Ohiopyle is an extremely popular park and a major tourist draw.  If drilling occurs there, it will be at the expense of tourism and recreation, the backbone of the regional economy. 

When John Norbeck was told he was terminated, he asked why.  He had a succession of glowing performance evaluations during his tenure through both the Rendell and Corbett administrations.  Adam Gingrich, Special Assistant and Director of Operations and Strategic Initiatives who reports directly to Secretary Richard Allan, told Norbeck that the "administration has decided to go in a different direction."    What is the different direction being charted for DCNR's public lands?  Mr. Gingrich, a Republican political operative, was installed in DCNR by the Governor's office, but has no public lands management experience.

John Norbeck was not the first person in DCNR who was terminated by the new Corbett administration political appointees.  Kurt Leithoff, Director of DCNR's Conservation and Natural Resources Advisory Committee (CNRAC) was abruptly forced to resign in January, 2012 by Secretary Allan, with no input from CNRAC.  The CNRAC has hiring and firing authority for its staff.  CNRAC was created by Act 18 of 1995, the same legislation that created DCNR, to serve as an independent oversight committee for DCNR.  Mr. Leithoff was hired as CNRAC's first, and only Director till his termination.  Like Norbeck, Leithoff was given an option to resign, or he would be fired.   CNRAC was notified of Leithoff's forced resignation at the same time Leithoff learned of it.  DCNR arbitrarily cut CNRAC's annual budget of $200,000 by 90%, preventing CNRAC from hiring a replacement.  Leithoff's assistant Joan Dupes was moved to another DCNR position, and replaced by part-time assistant Deb Miller, who had no background in CNRAC's affairs.

Since Leithoff's forced resignation, CNRAC members have been frustrated in their attempts to get information necessary to perform their DCNR oversight functions.  A special investigative report by PA Public Radio uncovered political interference in decisions about scientific research funding for a series of studies in Pennsylvania on environmental impacts of gas drilling and also climate change.   CNRAC demanded documentation to learn why the Corbett administration interfered with the traditional grant-making process for scientific studies, and was largely ignored by DCNR.   In fact, interference in DCNR decision-making by the Governor's office was documented in the Public Radio investigation.  That interference resulted in elimination of funding for four separate scientific studies.  Why does the Corbett administration fear scientific research into the impacts of fossil fuels?  Campaign contributions from the mining and oil and gas industry?

The extreme frustration felt by CNRAC members went public in September, 2012 when long-time CNRAC appointee Paulette Viola of Slippery Rock University submitted her letter of resignation, citing DCNR's increasing lack of transparency, stating that DCNR "had thwarted Council efforts to study drilling policy on public lands."  Viola, appointed to CNRAC by House Speaker Sam Smith, served on CNRAC since its creation in 1995, during the Ridge administration.  Viola complained that DCNR has been making unilateral changes to policy, with no consultation with CNRAC.

Without its own staff, CNRAC members are also largely cut off from the public, who has frequently contacted CNRAC to express concerns about agency actions.  Attempts to forward information to Council members are thwarted by a new policy.  CNRAC's Part-time administrative assistant informed me that she is prohibited from sending Council members any information, unless approved by high-level DCNR staff.  E-mail addresses, phone numbers and mailing addresses for CNRAC members are not available through the website page DCNR has created for CNRAC.

Last year, Governor Corbett's FY 2100-2012 budget cut DCNR's General Fund appropriations by 30%, so that the state's General Fund provided for less than 1/5 of DCNR's entire operating budget.  More than 1/3 of DCNR's entire operating budget - $95 million - came from resource extraction- drilling for gas and cutting timber.  This year's budget 2012 - 2013 continues the relentless cuts that DCNR has faced for half a decade, cutting DCNR's General Fund by another 5%.  DCNR's general fund budget is only about 2/3 of what it was when the agency was created 17 years ago.

Worse, DCNR is still dependent on gas drilling for its operating budget - $69.5 million in gas royalties from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund is used to fund DCNR operations, which is 1.4 times the General Fund appropriation and DCNR's largest source of operating money.  $26 million of royalties is being used to keep state parks open - at significantly reduced levels of service.  State forest operations fare even worse - its General Fund appropriation is less than $5.5 million.  $45 million in gas royalties and timber sales are keeping the state forest system going.

The bottom line:  Pennsylvania's conservation agency is dependent on resource extraction for its operating budget.  Is that conservation?  Is that sustainable?  The public expects and depends on DCNR to provide them with public lands that help maintain a high quality of life, and an environment free from industrial activities and pollution and a place safe for their families to enjoy.  What are the budget implications for next fiscal year?  Could they be driving Deputy Secretary Ellen Ferretti's interest in timbering, drilling and mining on state park land?  Ms. Ferretti has no background in public lands management. 

Does the Corbett administration plan to further privatize state parks and forests, or their management?  Will we see new proposals to turn our state parks into resorts that benefit a developer with big campaign contributions?    Does the Governor plan to replace DCNR wage staff with prison inmates, as he suggested to the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader?

Unfortunately, within our state park system, the Commonwealth only owns about 20% of the mineral rights.   The Marcellus Shale formation underlays 61 of our 120 state parks.  DCNR needs to make public the list of parks that  are being explored for gas.  They also need to tell us what parks have been identified by owners/lessees of mineral rights as possible candidates for exploration.  We have read that seismic testing has occurred adjacent to Ohiopyle State Park.  What is DCNR's response, and plan to manage this activity?  Previously DCNR officials have said they are powerless to prevent drilling in parks where they don't own the mineral rights. But recently DCNR Secretary Allan proclaimed in a letter to the editor defending Norbeck's termination that "We have not and are not considering drilling in state parks."    Which is it?   Secretary Allan has no background in public lands management.

In the 2.1 million acres Pennsylvania State Forest system, DCNR owns approximately 80% of the mineral rights for gas drilling, while approximately 20% are privately held.  Approximately 700,000 acres, or fully 1/3 of the state forests are available to the drilling industry, between what the Bureau of Forestry has leased, and what mineral rights are held privately.   As is the case in state parks, DCNR has stated that they have little ability to control the surface impacts of drilling activities, where they do not own the mineral rights.  However, in one spectacular part of the Loyalsock State Forest, which includes parts of Lycoming and Sullivan counties, DCNR has legal authority to limit surface impacts, but they refuse to acknowledge that authority.

The Old Loggers' Path is a nationally recognized hiking destination in the Pennsylvania Wilds, that DCNR says "offers stunning vistas and clear, cold, cascading streams."  The 27-mile loop trail falls within the Loyalsock State Forest, which also includes Rock Run, a designated exceptional value watershed. DCNR's literature that promotes tourism in the area says, "Few streams in Pennsylvania can match Rock Run's rich tapestry of deep, crystal-clear pools, cascading waterfalls, and massive, weathered rock formations.

While the mineral rights were severed from the land in 1933, when it was sold to the state, the deed to the land only allowed mineral rights access to the surface for 50 years.  In 1983, the surface access rights expired, and Commonwealth Court ruled in 1989 that the mineral rights owner had no surface access rights.  In 1999, the Commonwealth Court ruling was upheld by the PA Board of Claims.  The mineral rights were later sold sold to energy companies, including Anadarko Petroleum Company.

In recent months, Anadarko has been privately meeting with DCNR, and are planning to drill on up to 18,780 acres in the Loyalsock State Forest in the vicinity of the Old Loggers' Path and Rock Run.  DCNR has given Anadarko permission to lay out their development plans in the targeted area, while the public was kept in the dark.  When conservationists learned of the unique authority DCNR had to protect this special location, 6 conservation organizations sent a letter to Secretary Allan on September 7, 2012, asking him to disclose the plans for the forest, and to hold public hearings on the plan.  Our letter pointed out the authority DCNR has in this specific situation, and urged Secretary Allan to exercise that authority.  More than 6 weeks later, we have gotten no response from Secretary Allan.  Hundreds of people have rallied to support the protection of the Loyalsock State Forest and Rock Run.  Meanwhile, DCNR's press office put out a statement concerning the Loyalsock drilling issue that said, "There is no precedent for holding a public meeting on a development plan."

This is an example of the changes in public lands management philosophy that are taking place within the Corbett DCNR.  From promoting areas of the Pennsylvania Wilds as a scenic wonderland that can benefit regional tourism, to secret closed-door meetings with gas drilling companies to plan to drill those very same places, ignoring their legal authority to protect the land for the public.  If they refuse to use their authority to protect Rock Run, how long can we expect them to keep the current state forest gas leasing moratorium in place?  If they are open to allow mining at Laurel Ridge State Park by a campaign contributor to the Governor, will Ridley Creek be far behind?  If they want to start logging Ricketts Glen State Park, will Cook Forest be next?  DCNR has no legal authority to allow commercial mining and logging in our state parks.  Will that stop them?

The Corbett administration has been quietly dismantling its independent and public oversight, by firing CNRAC's Executive Director Kurt Leithoff, and refusing to provide requested information to the Advisory Committee.  DCNR stonewalls on public requests to provide information about OUR public lands.  When a DCNR conservation professional dares to disagree with the new vision to exploit our state parks for short-term gain, he is forced to resign.   DCNR employee morale is at an all-time low.  Senior management is monitoring agency staff calendars and phone calls, and reading staff e-mails.  

We urge the members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly to take action to stop the drive to exploit our public lands at the expense of future generations.  We need to halt the purge of dedicated conservation professionals. We must return the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to an agency that conserves OUR lands, rather than exploit them for short-term profits.  We need agency staff with backgrounds in conservation, not political appointees who know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.   

Thank you for your interest.

Jeff Schmidt

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the testimony Jeff. A truly unbelievable situation. What is happening in PA?