2017-10-14 / Viewpoints

No more ‘stealing our future’

BY RICHARD MARTIN

(A recent Endeavor News story detailing the vast acreage of state forest land in Potter and Cameron counties vulnerable to shale gas drilling prompts this response from Richard Martin. He is coordinator for the Pennsylvania Forest Coalition, a unique alliance of 4,115 hunters, hikers, anglers, landowners, wildlife-watchers, paddlers, bicyclists, churches and conservation groups dedicated to the stewardship of public lands.)

For years, members of the Pa. General Assembly acted as if they were the ones who determined the meaning of the state constitution. Thus, they improperly tapped millions of dollars from a fund that, by law, must be used solely to conserve and maintain Pennsylvania’s natural resources.

They didn’t count on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court doing the right thing after the state was sued by the non-profit Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation.

Language in the state constitution is unequivocal: “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment . . . Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come.”

It had been quoted for more than 40 years, but it had not been affirmed by the courts until June 2017.

This is a really big deal. It means that all agencies of the commonwealth (both state and local) have a fiduciary duty to preserve public natural resources with prudence, loyalty and impartiality.

The commonwealth is not the proprietor of our resources, only the duty-bound trustee. There is no limitation of this duty to be based on “reasonable” degradation, diminution or depletion. This is not “guide” for our legislators -- it is their affirmative duty to prohibit degradation.

The court has affirmed that all royalties from oil and gas must stay as part of the trust, and be used only to conserve and maintain our natural resources.

Before it was diverted, the original Oil & Gas Act of 1955 had been invested in conservation. That fund was the primary reason that the Pa. Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources expanded our system from 44 state parks to the present 120.

Now we must use this year’s Supreme Court decision to save and restore our state forests and state parks, allowing DCNR to fulfill its mission of conservation and maintenance of our public natural resources.

More legal action will be needed to fully enforce the decision. The Supreme Court has asked Commonwealth Court to determine if lease and bonus payments are also assets of the trust.

Our constitution’s environmental amendment makes Pennsylvania unique in protecting the public’s environmental rights. They may not realize it yet, but every public official in Pennsylvania is obligated to adhere to this Supreme Court decision because they all swore to uphold the constitution.

The June 20 decision by the State Supreme Court gives the amendment teeth, but more work must be done to ensure that the legislature will never again try to violate the constitutional rights of Pennsylvania’s citizens and our future generations.

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