Hikers Enlisted to Monitor Drilling Violations on Area Nature Trails

Washington PA Observer Reporter
13 May 2012
By Christie Campbell, Staff writer

People who hike Pennsylvania trails are being tapped for assistance in monitoring the natural gas drilling industry.

With 3.5 million hikers in Pennsylvania, it is hoped that the men and women who regularly use the trails will report possible drilling violations as well as other trail violations, such as the illegal use of mountain bikes, all-terrain vehicles or snowmobiles on areas marked only for hiking or on state forest roads.

The website Fractracker.org, operated by the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies to collect data on Marcellus Shale drilling, is providing a way for people to report problems on trails in Pennsylvania by downloading a form to report an incident.

These incident reports will be forwarded to the Keystone Trails Association, which will review them and report any irregularities to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

However, a DCNR spokeswoman noted it is the state Department of Environmental Protection that regulates the gas drilling industry. The DCNR leases state forest land for drilling and would enforce the lease if there were problems, she said.

Curt Ashenfelter, executive director of the KTA, said the association began hearing anecdotal comments about hikers running into problems while using the trails. Ashenfelter himself was told by a security guard for a drilling company that he was not permitted on the Mid State Trail in northcentral Pennsylvania. Ashenfelter said he had an amicable conversation with a guard, who finally permitted him to use the trail, but he wonders whether others would have been deterred.

"Maybe someone else would be intimidated and would turn around and go home," he said in a telephone interview.

Brook Lenker, who maintains Fractracker's website, said a web post about a trail impact got him thinking about a way to determine the scale of impacts. He approached Ashenfelter with the idea of providing a forum for people to make reports.

"We're not out to make any assumptions," he said, noting the incidents could be very small.

Ashenfelter agreed there are hikers who may not be familiar with local or state regulations for the drilling industry. For that reason, the KTA will review any incidents prior to forwarding them to the DCNR.

"There is certainly an education process here, and not everyone knows the rules and regulations, so people will be reporting what they think is a problem that may not be a problem," he said.

Fractracker's purpose is to collect data on gas drilling that could have an impact on the environment, public health or communities. According to its website, the Heinz Endowments has provided it with $1.5 million in funding, and the William Penn Foundation provided it with a $300,000 grant.

The association has a vested interest in all hiking trails in the state, which include 10,000 miles of trails and 3,000 miles of long-distance trails. Locally, that would include the Warrior Trail in Greene County. But the association is also concerned with trails located in county parks and municipalities.

"When we heard the state was going to lease 700,000 acres of land to gas drillers, it made sense that there were going to be impacts on hiking trails," Ashenfelter said.

Another way hikers are being tapped for information has to do with issues unrelated to the gas drilling industry. For example, ATVs and snowmobiles must have a registration plate, and those operating them are required to wear helmets and stick to designated trails. Ashenfelter said hikers have reported damage to walking trails from motorized vehicles in the past, and most trails are not suitable even for mountain bikes.

The gas drilling industry has provided volunteer labor for trail upgrades and maintenance as well as financial assistance, Ashenfelter said.

Another way the industry is making a financial impact can be seen in Wellsboro, the home of the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon. For years, the little town in Tioga County welcomed the 150 hikers who came to hike the canyon each spring because they provided an economic boost to the town. Much of that has changed now, Ashenfelter said. Gas workers now occupy the town's hotel year-round, and other lodges have been constructed, bringing a new prosperity to the town.