State officials are not considering leasing any additional acres of state forestland or parks for gas drilling, Gov. Tom Corbett told reporters Monday (Oct. 15), according to a report by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Asked about rumors that have circulated since John Norbeck was dismissed as state parks director earlier this month, Corbett vigorously denied that state parks soon could see drilling activity.
“Can we put that to rest? I don’t know where that came from,” he said during a news conference about drilling impact fees collected this fall. “There was a moratorium put on the state forests. We haven’t lifted that. We haven’t even talked about lifting that. We haven’t talked about drilling in the state parks.”
In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after his dismissal, Norbeck cited “philosophical differences” between himself and the Corbett administration regarding mining and drilling in state parks.
Corbett said he never stated he would consider leasing land in the state’s 117 public parks, which received a national award under Norbeck’s stewardship.
More than 700,000 acres of state forestland — which include mineral rights held by the state and by private citizens — currently are available for gas drilling.
The governor noted the ongoing activity in state forests, saying Pennsylvania would be “competing against” itself if additional forest leasing was considered amid the low natural gas prices.
“It can be done, it can be done safely, but we’re not prepared anytime in the next few years to even discuss that,” Corbett said. “We have enough going on right now.”
A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said there is no connection between last week’s dismissal of the state parks director and his opposition to a higher-up’s support for timbering or mining efforts on state lands.
The dismissal of John Norbeck is raising questions about whether Gov. Tom Corbett is making plans to allow mining or timbering on the lands.
“DCNR also does not plan to make any changes to policies related to commercial timbering or mining on state park lands,” spokeswoman Chris Novak said in an emailed statement to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We have no intention of allowing anyone to cut timber solely for revenue generation on state park lands. We would not allow surface mining where we control the mineral rights.”
Norbeck told the newspaper this week that his last day will be Oct. 19 after he received a termination letter from the state’s human resources office.
Corbett administration officials are not saying why they wanted Norbeck out, but say there’s no connection to resource development issues.
Norbeck told the newspaper he opposed one company’s plans to mine limestone beneath Laurel Ridge State Park in southwestern Pennsylvania and objected to discussion by an administration official about allowing commercial timbering operations in state parks.
John Norbeck, head of Pennsylvania’s award-winning park system, said the current administration forced his resignation last week because of “philosophical differences,” including his opposition to commercial timbering, mining and Marcellus Shale gas drilling in the parks.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that his departure comes on the heels of recent criticism of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources by Paulette Viola, a longtime Citizens Advisory Committee member, about its lack of transparency on resource extraction issues and amid reports of widespread morale problems.
In a phone interview from his home, Norbeck, 56, said he received a termination letter from the state’s human resources office on Oct. 1, informing him that his last day of work would be Friday, Oct. 5, but “if he wanted to tender his resignation it would be considered.”
On Wednesday he agreed to resign and asked for, and was granted, a two-week extension, through Oct. 19, to prepare a transition document for a new parks director.
In response, State Rep. Camille “Bud” George, Democratic chair of the House Environmental Resources & Energy Committee, called for a hearing into the resignation of John Norbeck as director of the Bureau of State Parks within the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
“I have asked the Republican chair of the committee to schedule a hearing as soon as possible to probe the troubling and apparently forced resignation of John Norbeck as director of state parks,” said Rep. George, D-74 of Clearfield County. “The state parks and forests belong to the people of Pennsylvania, and the committee has a duty to oversee and protect those lands.”
Rep. George noted that while time is running out on the 2011-12 legislative session, responsibilities to the public are not on a timer.
“I was willing to give the Corbett administration the benefit of the doubt and wrote to DCNR Secretary Richard J. Allan last week asking for his explanation of Mr. Norbeck’s departure,” Rep. George said. “When the news broke, the administration said that, ‘Any assertion that there’s a connection between John Norbeck’s resignation and natural resource development on state land is totally without merit.’
Pennsylvania’s state parks have become a political pawn between Republicans sparring with Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell over a 2009-10 budget that is due by the end of this month. Both sides say they won’t know what will happen to the parks until a final budget is approved, according to the Meadvill (Pa.) Tribune.
In the latest salvo, the state House Appropriations Committee shot down a state Senate budget proposal from Republicans that would have been $19 million less for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) than what the governor proposed.
If put in place, the plan would have meant closure of at least 35 and as many as 50 of the state’s 117 state parks, according to a news release from DCNR.
Officials at DCNR and the area’s representatives say it’s too early to tell what may happen to the state parks since there is no budget in place. By law, Pennsylvania is to have a budget by each June 30 for the new fiscal year that begins July 1.
In 2007, a delay in passing the state budget on time actually shut down all of Pennsylva-nia’s state parks for a few days.
Pete Houghton, superintendent at Pymatuning State Park, said he knows economic times are tough.
“We’re going to be challenged,” Houghton said of the season ahead.
The park already has fewer employees than last year at this time. It has 21 full-time workers compared to 23 last year. Also, the park has only six seasonal custodians instead of the 12 it had last year, and three laborers instead of the four it had last year.