ROBERT SWIFT: Capitol Matters: Gas drilling under Mt. Pisgah?
HARRISBURG - Fifty years ago, Pennsylvania voters approved a constitutional amendment to authorize borrowing so the state could purchase land for recreational, conservation and historical purposes.
The result was the Project 70 bond program from 1964 to 1970, which led to the addition of thousands of acres to expand state parks, state historic sites, game and fish commission areas and municipal park and recreation areas.
The program gave priority to land purchases in counties where less than 10 percent of the land was in public ownership or there was an urban area of 25,000 residents or more. Lackawanna, Luzerne, Wyoming, Wayne and Bradford counties fell into that category.
Project 70 money was used to purchase land for 22 state parks, including Lackawanna, Lehigh Gorge, Shikellamy, Locust Lake, Nescopeck and Mt. Pisgah in Northeast Pennsylvania.
Project 70 helped make possible the great expansion of the state park system in the 1960s and 1970s under the direction of Dr. Maurice Goddard, the longtime top state environmental official.
Project 70 is relevant today due to a unique condition on lands purchased with its money. Any land acquired through Act 70 can't be used for other purposes aside from recreation, conservation or historical use without approval first from state lawmakers.
The state can issue permits to locate utility lines on and to remove oil, gas and other minerals from Project 70 land, an important point given the latest controversy over gas drilling on public lands.
Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed additional natural gas drilling in state forests and in state parks to generate $75 million in lease payments to help balance the 2014-15 state budget. The proposal involves allowing gas firms operating on nearby parcels of privately owned land to drill underground to reach commonwealth-owned gas deposits in state parks and forests as long as it doesn't disturb the land surface.
Officials at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources have yet to identify potential state parks that would be candidates for drilling under the governor's proposal.
A number of the state parks acquired with the help of Project 70 funds are in the Marcellus Shale formation. Mt. Pisgah, Ohiopyle and Oil Creek are some of them.
No prior legislative approval is needed for gas drilling in state park lands acquired through Project 70, said Dan Devlin, acting DCNR deputy secretary for parks and forestry, last week. The leasing for underground drilling under the governor's plan wouldn't change the basic use of that land for recreation and conservation purposes, he added.
A Project 70 bill involving a tract in Schuylkill County is before the Legislature.
Legislation sponsored by Sen. David Argall, R-29, Tamaqua, and Rep. Neal Goodman, D-123, Mahanoy City, would transfer control of the state Museum of Anthracite Mining to Ashland. The borough has been leasing office space in the museum for a number of years. A portion of the museum land was bought with Project 70 funds. The bill would authorize the transfer provided the land is used only for a museum and municipal offices.
ROBERT SWIFT is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers, of which The Daily/Sunday Review is a part.