As a state blessed with truly great outdoors, Pennsylvania should give great weight to natural conservation. That's one reason the Legislature and the Ridge administration split the former Department of Environmental Resources into the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Conservational and Natural Resources in 1995.

Now the state government has embarked on a dangerous path in making operations of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources heavily dependent on proceeds from gas drilling.

According to the analysis by House Democrats, the DCNR this year will draw more operating revenue from oil and gas lease revenue on public lands, about $106 million, than from the taxpayer-supported General Fund, about $30 million. Legislators always are relieved to receive dedicated sources of revenue outside of general tax revenue, but in this case it is not the best public policy.

In 2010 the Rendell administration placed a moratorium on new gas and oil leases on state forest land. The objective is to fulfill the state's obligation for conservation of public lands.

Making the DCNR heavily dependent on revenue from such leases puts the conservation agency's budget at odds with its mission. Pressure to allow further drilling will mount when it includes additional revenue to fund the agency. That's the wrong way to fund an agency charged with defending the public's interest in conservation rather than drilling.

An early test could play out soon because the DCNR is considering a proposal by Anadarko Petroleum to drill in the Loyalsock State Forest near Williamsport, which is fiercely opposed by environmental interests.

The other issue is that money from the oil and gas lease fund that is used for operations diminishes the amount available for the agency's $1 billion backlog of needed repairs and upgrades in state parks and forests.

Lawmakers should restore independence to the DCNR budget, rather than tying it to future drilling decisions.