Energy. Environment. Economy.

As gas boom cuts into forests, scientists study how to put it back together


In the seven years since Marcellus Shale gas companies began working in Pennsylvania’s state forests, none of the nearly 1,700 affected acres has been fully restored and put back the way it was before drilling began.

Now state foresters and Penn State scientists are trying to plan for the future and help gas companies figure out the best ways to clean up after themselves.

Kelly Sitch spends a lot of time in the woods, keeping an eye on how gas development is changing the landscape. As a botanist with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, his latest project is studying a one-acre plot of land in the Tiadaghton State Forest.

“We are building a mock wellpad to test different soil and ecological restoration techniques,” he says. ”We want to go from a wellpad that is non-forest, to a reclaimed site, where we’re restoring ecosystem function.”

This clearing in the forest is a scaled-down version of what would likely be left after a gas company has brought in the big drilling rig, finished up the fracking, and put the wells into production.

The trees are gone, the soil is compacted, and there are lots of rocks lying around.

“We’re loosening up some soil and planting seedlings in the area surrounding this pad,” says DCNR forester Ben Gamble. “There are a lot of stones, and some of the soils are mixed.”

The research team is trying out four different reclamation techniques. On one end of the spectrum, they left the compacted rocks and soil, then added some topsoil. On the other end, they dug furrows nearly two feet down to loosen things up and added topsoil. They’ve planted various grasses, legumes, and wildflowers on top– with trees and shrubs around the edges.

Penn State University senior Bill Wall is among a group of students helping out.

“At Penn State, you learn a lot about the Chesapeake Bay and fracking,” he says. “But I’ve never been to a fracking pad. It’s pretty eye-opening–the fragmentation that occurs with the infrastructure that goes into developing natural gas.”

Of the nearly 200 wellpads in state forests, only about 5 percent have been partially reclaimed—meaning some equipment has been removed and perhaps grasses, shrubs, or tress have been planted.  So far none of the Marcellus sites in state forests have been fully restored to the way they were before the gas companies arrived.

Sitch says that’s largely because they’re still in use.

“The fact that we haven’t seen a lot of reclamation and restoration yet isn’t a concern,” he says. “We want this site to be a number of years ahead, so we can do that work better.”

Patrick Drohan teaches ecosystem science at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Science. He’s leading the research, with a grant from DCNR. He hopes to find best practices companies can use now– in the interim– before they need to leave altogether and fully restore the sites.

“What we’re trying to do here is show that if you go a couple of extra steps–by alleviating that compaction and diversifying your plantings– you can greatly improve that status quo,” says Drohan. “So this can be used now.”

Replicating this work on a typical five-acre wellpad would take about five to six hours, according to Drohan. The team spent about $4,000 on equipment.

“In the big picture of a pad, that’s nothing,” he says.

Gas development is just the latest challenge for DCNR’s foresters.They’re charged with balancing conversation efforts, and making use of natural resources—whether it’s timber, oil, or gas.

“In my mind, this is just a new part of our mission to restore Pennsylvania forests,” says Sitch. “It’s a little bit more complex. It’s a little bit different than what we learned in ecology or forestry school, but it falls along those same lines.”

Although Governor Wolf recently reinstated a moratorium on leasing state land for gas drilling, nearly a third of Pennsylvania’s 2.2 million acres of state forest land is already available for oil and gas development– either because of pre-existing leases, or because the state does not own the mineral rights.

The research team will be watching this patch of land for a long time, to see which techniques work best. It could be decades, or even generations until the state’s forests are fully restored from Marcellus development.



  • DoryHippauf

    Once you frack you can’t go back. How much will it cost Pennsylvania tax payers to clean up after the frackers?

    • Broadnax

      Most of the forest land in Pennsylvanian is second or third generation. You can restore forests with some efforts or nature will do it given a little more time. The taxpayers should not have to pay for anything. A well written contract will require that the frackers do a good job and leave a sustainable system when they go. We have a gas pipeline crossing our land in Virginia. They made what looked like a mess when they built it, but they are now fixing it up and doing a good job.
      My point is not to disagree with your concern, but rather to show that you CAN go back to sustainable land. We have seen this now in Eastern North America, where forests returned. If you walk from Lexington to Concord, you wonder about how the revolutionary minute men could move through the woods. The answer is that there were not wood there back then. Look at pictures from the past (as in Civil War etc) and look at the same places today. You see much more forest today than in 1865.

  • KeepTapWaterSafe

    How do you un-compact soil? How do you replace microbial life? And does wildlife leave a forwarding address so we can let them know when it’s safe to return? Gas companies are profiting wildly while Pennsylvania is losing something priceless. It can’t be replaced. This is madness.

    • Broadnax

      We break up the hard compact on our landing areas and plant forbs and legumes. It provides very good bobwhite quail habitat and develops into wildlife plots over the next year. You can plant trees the same year and they will grow just fine. If you do nothing, it will take a fairly long time (10-15 years) to recover. If you tend to it, you probably create a net benefit in a few months.

  • PaulOtruba

    As the previous Upper Susquehanna Riverkeeper, I have seen a lot of devastated land due to coal mining. What I have never seen is a forest fully reclamated, far from it. DCNR, Harrisburg, DEP and Penn State have a lot of rubber stamping issues and questionable efficiency standards. The gas industry seems to have bought into all these. This is Pennsylvania. I don’t expect this to change for the better in wake of the gas industry, or the coal industry. As this article supports, Penn State and DCNR don’t know what they are doing, even after hundreds of years of coal and over 150 years of gas and oil. And/or is this just going through the motions spending grant monies, again.

  • winterarrives

    Another contribution to the climate crisis that we can thank
    the natural gas industry for- all those lovely 5 to 10 acre gravel lots also can
    no longer sequester carbon. Not only are they unable to sequester carbon they
    have also released it through the destruction of a healthy field or forest.

    An acre of 50 yr old forest sequesters 30,000 pounds of
    carbon dioxide annually, an older forest much more. 700,000 acres of PA forest
    land have already been leased –twenty percent of that for Marcellus pads, that
    means a loss of 140,000 carbon sequestering acres on PA forest land. I can only
    surmise that the climate impact is significant when figuring in all the shale
    plays and pipelines and access roads

    • Broadnax

      You need to make a distinction between “sequestering” and “sequestered”. A mature forest has more carbon sequestered, but is not sequestering much anymore. In fact, it is nearly carbon neutral. A young forest has little sequestered, but is growing fast and sequestering.

      A good example of how this works is the SE U.S.. It is a net carbon sink because of the rapidly growing new forests. At some point a few decades from now, as the forests mature and sequester les carbon, this will change.
      So the difference between the use of the gerund and the simple past tense is very important in what you verbs you write.

  • joshjess

    I agree with what KeepTapWaterSafe stated about soil health and building upon it with focusing the initial restoration efforts to condition the soil first before trying to plant much in it. There may be a way to require the gas companies to “inoculate” the soil with a combination of the correct microbes, bugs and worms so that nature can jump-start the soil healing process so that when you do spend money on plantings, you obtain successful growth.

  • Fracked

    Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall……and all the gas disciples could not put it back together since they were long gone. Truth is they really didn’t care since they had all their eggs in the basket that the “Golden Goose” laid. We are cracked and most definitely fracked.

  • Scott

    It’s amazing that everyone wants energy for their cars and houses but they don’t want to know where it comes from. And they blame the energy producers for supplying it. They also blame everyone one else for impacts on the environment but excuse their own daily impacts of driving, sewage, garbage, building the homes they live in, heating and cooling their homes and offices, etc. All we can do is be responsible stewards. Humans are just as much a part of the environment as deer, fish, flowers, and birds. Millions of years of coexistence seems to have proved we can make it work. Obviously we can always improve, but it must be practical and feasible.

    • Candy DeBerry

      Like my rooftop solar PV – generating 163% of the electricity we used last year. Soil compaction, deforestation, loss of carbon sequestration = ZERO.

  • Scott

    Correction- Thousands of years of coexistence.

  • Scott

    Like the soil you compacted and covered when your house was built, or when the roads you drive on were built. How about the forests cleared decades ago to grow your food? Face it we all participate in changes to the environment because we are part of the environment. The goal is to impact it as little as possible but don’t pretend your solar panels are saving the world. some big hole in the ground was made to get the material to build your solar panels.

  • Brett Jennings

    “At Penn State, you learn a lot about the Chesapeake Bay and fracking,” he says.” That is one interesting statement, but PA will not meet the 2017 goals for Total Nitrogen or total suspended solids for the TMDL. That is the scary thing for municipalities with MS4 permits or Sewer discharges. Why, the 29 December 2009 letter from the EPA saying what they can do if the goals or progression to the goals are not meet.

  • Broadnax

    I worry mostly about forest fragmentation. The other problems can be addressed by decent land management. And is not the fracking that I worry most about. When these places are “opened” by fracking, it is likely people will move in. A clearcut forests is STILL a forest. It is just in the stage of new birth. When you build a house or a shopping center, you change the equation. Fracking has a small footprint, but bigger feet may come.

    • hmontaigne

      I’ve read that there will be sound buffers around compressor stations in populated areas, but not in wilder more rural areas. There should be sound buffers there too. While I was driving through a wild area, the noise was deafening. I can’t imagine any animals, with their sensitive hearing, would want to stick around where the roar is so loud. Something else to think about.

  • Galley_Queen

    And just who is paying for this “reclamation”?

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