Energy. Environment. Economy.

Scientists document gas development disturbing forest ecosystems


Pennsylvania is no stranger to extractive industries–like coal and timber. By the early twentieth century its forests were decimated. Today they’ve grown back and trees are harvested in a sustainable manner.

But scientists say the state’s surge in natural gas development is having new kinds of dramatic effects on its forests.

“Industrial infrastructure”

Kevin Heatley lives in Lycoming County and has spent years hiking in the Tiadaghton State Forest . He’s an ecologist by trade. As he stands next to a freshly cleared patch of forest, he’s disturbed by what he sees.

“Everything from the noise and the traffic to the lighting, to the pad placements, to the pipeline construction to the road expansion,” he says. “This is all industrial infrastructure. It’s inherently incompatible with sustainable forest management.”

It’s called forest fragmentation. It’s what happens when human development crisscrosses the landscape, carving up large swaths of contiguous forest into smaller pieces.

The U.S. Geological Survey has found most of the disturbance from Lycoming County’s gas drilling is happening in sensitive ecosystems known as core forests.

These areas are very different from edge habitat– that’s forest next to something else, like a grassy field, or a suburban home.

Big tracts of core forests are less common, and they’re home to species that don’t do well near people.

Margaret Brittingham is a professor of Wildlife Resources at Penn State University who’s also studied forest fragmentation.  She says when core forest is lost, so are the host of important services its plant and animal species provide.

“Insect control, climate control, water purification, you can go on and on,” she says. “Recreation, aesthetics.”

Pennsylvania currently has 2.2 million acres of public forest land. About 700,000 acres are available for oil and gas development.

Seneca Resources is one of the largest and most active drillers in state forests. Spokesman Rob Boulware says the company works to minimize forest fragmentation. For example, it tries to use existing roads instead of building new ones.

He points out other industries cut down plenty of trees too.

“If [forest fragmentation] is a concern, and there are people who will debate and evaluate this—it’s a concern for all activity that we are engaged in as humans,” says Boulware. “Not just the activity that’s being engaged in through the oil and gas industry.”

Endangered species bill stirs controversy

The state’s gas industry is pushing a new measure that may lead to more forest fragmentation. Drillers are backing a bill that would limit the authority of state agencies to designate endangered species.

Boulware argues it’s a matter of consistency for businesses. For example, he says companies are sometimes required to conduct expensive and time consuming wildlife surveys before they begin drilling.

“These are little things that companies are looking for that would be companies are looking for that would be cost-savings for each individual, and that’s what you don’t have with the current system.”

State Rep. Jeff Pyle (R- Armstrong) is sponsoring the House version of the bill. He says the agencies involved in endangered species designations– like the Game Commission– shouldn’t hinder economic development.

“The problem we have is our missions are conflicting,” he says. “Their mission is to protect the game species of Pennsylvania. As a legislator, part of my mission is to make sure my people don’t see widespread unemployment.”

As the pace of Pennsylvania’s gas production continues to surge, energy markets will dictate how much development occurs. Scientists say the key question is how much disturbance forests can withstand.

State developing forest monitoring report

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), which is charged with overseeing public forest land, has spent four years and about eight million dollars on a monitoring program to examine how gas drilling is affecting the forests.

Although the program was launched in 2010, the agency has not released any details about its monitoring efforts and recently denied a Right To Know Law request by StateImpact Pennsylvania to obtain more information.

DCNR spokeswoman Chris Novak says the department expects to release an initial report in the next few months with subsequent reports coming out every couple of years.

“This is a long-term effort. It took some time to hire staff and establish protocols,” she says. “We don’t have a specific [release] date at this point.”


  • William Huston

    I ran a calculation once and determined that ~5,500 acres of PA farmland have been lost forever due to Marcellus Shale gas development, nearly 11 million trees (if we include edge effects)

  • wendylynnelee

    And right along with that forest fragmentation goes the habitat for species of animal that don’t do well near people–that need contiguous forest to thrive. Hence, it’s no wonder at all that the gas companies want to do away with protections for endangered species–what State Rep. Jeff Pyle mistakenly calls “game species”–It’s also no wonder that he’s bought lock, stock, and frack-fluid barrel by the industry. For more on the connection between Mr. Pyle’s intrepid legislation to gut PA’s endangered species act (SB 1047/HB 1576), forest fragmentation, and the now largely overturned Act 13, please see:

  • Victoria Switzer

    Protecting Penn’s Woods now assures a future for PA. This short sighted destruction of Pennsylvania’s irreplaceable resources, water, air, soil, forest, for a short run on another fossil fuel will be another dark chapter in our history. God save Pennsylvania because our elected officials will not.

    • wendylynnelee

      That’s absolutely true. Hence it is particularly odd that you have endorsed Joh Hanger–who absolutely will not save Penn’s Woods, or anyone else’s special place. And it’s even more odd that you are now among the “starlets” of Marcellus Drilling News–whose interest in Penn’s Woods is indeed very green–but hardly about preserving the contiguous forest.

      For more on this, see:

      • Tom Frost

        It won’t be long until Marcellus Drilling News makes a starlet of you for endorsing their spin about how the fractivist movement is going onto the ash heap of history, Wendy.

        • wendylynnelee

          Hardly, Mr. Frost. And we all have to hope you’re wrong–however trivializing and glib. Good thing history includes real heros like Nelson Mandela–who didn’t sit down with the proponents of Apartheid to see how its harms could be mitigated for the few, or the brave women of Seneca Falls, NY who demanded suffrage for all women–not just the women of their own county, or the French Resistance Fighters during WWII–whose actions inspired resistance everywhere as opposed to the Vichy Government style of forfeiture–and the horrific consequences that followed from that.

          The stakes could certainly not be higher–whether or not the Breathin’Easy folks endorsing Mr. Hanger all the while chattin’ up WPX get it:

          • Tom Frost

            You’re no Nelson Mandela.

          • JimBarth

            Perhaps Ms. Lee is more Malcolm X than N. Mandela (?) but, neither she, nor the “fractivist movement” as you so contemptuously refer to millions of people, are going anywhere near the “ash heap of history”, “Tommy”.

            While I do not harbor an ill opinion of Ms. Switzer’s politics, yours, on the other hand, make it easy to have that opinion. Are you fish, fowl, or, simply a pro frac’ing “realist”?

            You can not channel Lloyd Bentsen, when you so resemble Dan Quayle.

          • Tom Frost

            Ms. Lee might indeed become a Malcolm X sometime in the future, in that Malcolm X changed some of his positions later in his life. My best guess of when that might happen in the case of Ms. Lee, although I have a feeling it won’t even then, will be after her segregationist politics have finished the job of handing Tom Corbett another 4 years.
            But, me “contemptuous” towards the “fractivist movement”? No! Not towards the real ones. “Frac’K'ivists”, rather, is the version of the term that I can be found using sometimes when I’m in my more contemptuous – and then only towards a certain faction of them – moods.

          • JimBarth

            Good to know.

          • JimBarth

            That you are only contemptuous of a faction/fraction of the millions. Does that put you on the same playing field as Ms. Lee? Everyone is entitled to their feelings, it just may not be very productive towards those who are, broadly speaking, or, to a certain extent, on the same side.

            I’ve seen many of Wendy Lynn Lee’s posts and essays. She’s done a hell of a lot for the cause. I don’t know you.

  • MonsAcutus

    Supporting arguments can be found here, David Quammen’s book on environmental fragmentation.

  • paulroden

    Lets add up the impact. 1.Forest fragmentation disturbing ecosystems, storm water runoff, erosion, and habitats. 2. Adding both carbon dioxide and methane to the air increasing climate change. 3. More traffic, noise and exhausts from trucks, generators and machinery at well sites. 4. More air pollution, green house gas emissions from well flaring. 5. Pipeline and pumping station noise, pollution, leaks, explosions and fires. 6. Exposure to radioactive elements in the methane and the drill cuttings leads to cancer. 7. Sand extracted and used in fracking leads to lung disease for the miners at sand pits and at drill sites. 8. Contamination of watersheds, water ways, wells and reservoirs by accidents, storm water overflows at wellpad sites and dispersal by well waster water being reclassified as having “beneficial use” for road dust control and de-icing leads to further contamination of the environment. 9. The cost of monitoring and remediation of spent wellpads is unknown and liability is not established because the drillers are exempt from the Clean Water, Clean Air, Safe Drinking Water and Super Fund Acts. Do you really think that the PA DEP & DCNR are really going to hold the drillers accountable after the gas plays are spent? 10. Lost farmland, private lands, hunting, camping fishing and recreation by the state in gas play areas. 11. Lost of tax revenue after the gas play is spent. 12. Increased crime from the abuse of alcohol, prostitution, fist a cuffs by the transient well rig drill crews from out of state. 13. Unknown cost and location for storage of “well brine”, “flowback”, “produced water” and “well waste water.” 14. Impact of deep well waste water causing earthquakes, read
    Science 12 July 2013: Vol. 341 no. 6142 pp. 164-167 DOI:10.1126/science.1238948. So does this really add up? Is this the price we are willing to pay? Germany is going the route of renewable energy without fossil fuel or nuclear energy. They are not wrecking their economy or “starving and freezing in the dark.”

  • davidmeiser

    The Bureau of Forestry’s mission is to ensure the long-term health, viability and productivity of the Commonwealth’s forests and to conserve native wild plants.

    -Taken verbatim from Bureau of Forestry website!

    That is in conflict with what is currently happening in Pennsylvania forests!

  • crystalpoint

    People who do that cannot see the forest from the “Trees”. i.e. Americas independence from foreign oil!
    Ray Smith

  • Rodger Waldman

    For Professor Brittingham’s latest study, “Conventional Oil and Gas Development Alters Forest Songbird Communites,” see

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