Cumberland Times-News

Local News

April 6, 2013

Northeastern gas drilling boom threatens forest wildlife

Potential dangers to biologically rich forests taking new urgency

PITTSBURGH — Hawks swoop in and gobble up songbirds. Raccoons feast on nests of eggs they never could have reached before. Salamanders and wildflowers fade away, crowded out by invasive plants that are altering the soil they need to thrive.

Like a once-quiet neighborhood cut up by an expressway and laced with off ramps, northeastern forests are changing because of the pipelines crisscrossing them amid the region’s gas drilling boom, experts say.

Environmentalists have loudly worried that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, may threaten water and air, though the Obama administration and many state regulators say the practice is safe when done properly.

Threats to wildlife, though, have flown largely under the radar. But as studies detail plans for thousands of miles of new pipelines and related infrastructure, the dangers to biologically rich forests that have rebounded since vast clear-cutting in the 1800s are taking on new urgency.

“If you wanted to create a perfect storm for biological invasion, you would do what the energy companies are doing in north-central Pennsylvania,” said Kevin Heatley, an ecologist with the national firm Biohabitats who works to restore areas that have been damaged by human activity. “You can only put so many bloody parking lots in the woods.”

Energy companies, which say they are being responsible stewards of the land, have rushed to unlock the natural gas lying in the shale beneath Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. The gas has lowered energy costs, allowed the U.S. to lessen reliance on foreign energy and provided private landowners who sit atop well sites with a gold mine in royalties. New York, which also has large reserves, is trying to decide whether to allow fracking.

The new energy development is “almost a spider web coming down to the forest,” said Nels Johnson of the Pennsylvania chapter of The Nature Conservancy, which estimates the state could see thousands of miles of new pipelines over the next two decades.

Even northeastern states that have put a hold on fracking aren’t immune, because many import natural gas. The U.S. Energy Information Administration found that 245 miles of new pipelines were laid in the Northeast last year, and that figure is projected to grow.

Wind turbine development poses similar threats, too. The Nature Conservancy says Pennsylvania already has more than 600 of the giant blades, with the potential for thousands more in coming decades.

The total acreage taken up by the pipelines, wind projects and related development isn’t that large, but the open spaces they create allow predators and invasive species to permeate a canopy of trees that once kept them at bay.

It’s not hypothetical, scientists say. Studies and observations have documented invasions. And just as with humans, the uninvited guests change the neighborhood.

Forest fragmentation opens the door to invasive species such as the cowbird, a type of blackbird that normally prefers open land, said Bridget Stutchbury, a biologist at York University in Toronto who studies forest songbirds.

“The female cowbird sneaks around the forest, laying her egg in other species’ nests,” Stutchbury said. Forest birds such as thrushes and warblers don’t realize the egg isn’t theirs and expend energy raising chicks from another species in what she called a “nifty strategy for child-rearing.”

The droppings that cowbirds and other invaders leave behind can also contain seeds from invasive plants that will sprout, spread and ultimately change the soil so much that some forest salamanders and wildflowers can’t survive, experts note.

A report by the U.S. Geological Survey, released last week, found that in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna County, at the heart of the drilling boom, the number of patches or sections of forest increased by about 156 between 2001 and 2010, with Marcellus Shale drilling and related pipelines responsible for most of the change.

The energy industry said that it welcomes original research, but that it should be seen in context.

The Geological Survey report, said Patrick Creighton, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, found that oil and gas activity affected less than 1 percent of the forest area in Allegheny and Susquehanna counties.

That number may seem small, but experts say it’s a cause for concern, nonetheless.

“As an ecologist, you can look at that and say, wow, there are going to be changes,” said Terry Slonecker, the researcher who authored the USGS report, who said it’s too early to know where fragmentation has gone too far.

There is concern even at the numbers the USGS found, Stutchbury said, noting that without serious reforestation efforts “we can anticipate really big impacts not just on birds, but all these forest critters.”

The Nature Conservancy is examining potential effects from gas drilling and wind turbines on an eight-state region from New York to Tennessee. That report is due out later this year. The group notes that old and new energy sources have both promise and risk for society and nature, since natural gas and wind energy produce less pollution than coal.

Careful planning and reforestation efforts could reduce the effects of pipelines, wind turbines and other human activity, scientists said. For example, multiple pipelines could be placed on one right of way, or wind turbines might go on land that is already barren because of old coal mining.

 

1
Text Only
Local News
  • Easter experience Easter experience

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • Game on: City interested in baseball study

    After it looked like the objection of a couple of constituents to a study on the feasibility of bringing a minor league baseball team to the area may have torpedoed the thought, county commissioners and some city officials sounded ready to sing a chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on Thursday.

    April 18, 2014

  • DEREK SHEELY Charges against helmet maker stand in case of Frostburg player’s death

    A Montgomery County judge this week declined to dismiss charges against a helmet manufacturer in a case brought by the parents of a Frostburg State University football player who died of head injuries in August 2011 following four straight days of heavy contact drills in practice.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • GAYLE MANCHIN W.Va. BOE president speaks on issues at WVSDB

    West Virginia Board of Education President Gayle Manchin responded to issues at the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind during an interview with the Times-News Wednesday morning.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • REGINALD REDMAN Moorefield man jailed on felony drug count

    A Moorefield man was arrested on various charges Thursday, including a felony drug offense for possession of amphetamines, according to the Keyser Police Department.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • Blossoming optimism Blossoming optimism

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • Cemetery group’s efforts revive Oak Hill grounds Cemetery group’s efforts revive Oak Hill grounds

    After you drive Alexander and Furnace streets then navigate a couple of switchbacks on Cemetery Road, you’d figure there would be no more uphill.

    April 17, 2014 2 Photos

  • Proposed county budget holds most agencies flat

    After taking into account an income tax shortfall, Allegany County Finance Director Jason Bennett said he’ll propose a budget that holds most outside agencies to flat funding and funds the Board of Education at what county officials say are maintenence of effort levels for 2015.

    April 17, 2014

  • RYAN WOLF Wolf named 2014-15 Garrett Teacher of the Year

    Southern Garrett High School teacher Ryan Wolf has been named the 2014-15 Garrett County Teacher of the Year.

    April 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • Rep. Delaney discusses congressional gridlock Rep. Delaney discusses congressional gridlock

    While giving a civics lesson at Frostburg State University on Thursday, U.S. Rep. John Delaney, congressman from Maryland’s sixth district, told students that the polarization in Congress is due primarily to redistricting and a poorly designed Congressional schedule.

    April 17, 2014 1 Photo

Facebook
Must Read
News related video
Raw: Fire Destroys 3 N.J. Beachfront Homes Raw: Space X Launches to Space Station Man Charged in Kansas City Highway Shootings Obama Awards Navy Football Trophy Ceremony at MIT Remembers One of Boston's Finest Raw: Students Hurt in Colo. School Bus Crash Raw: Church Tries for Record With Chalk Jesus Police Arrest Suspect in Highway Shootings Drought Concerns May Hurt Lake Tourism Vermont Goat Meat Gives Refugees Taste of Home Calif. Investigators Re-construct Fatal Bus Cras Appellate Court Hears Okla. Gay Marriage Case Horseless Carriage Introduced at NY Auto Show Chelsea Clinton Is Pregnant Beau Biden Plans 2016 Run for Del. Governor Flamingo Frenzy Ahead of Zoo Construction Obama: 8 Million Healthcare Signups Obama Hopeful on Ukraine, Will Watch Russians U.S. Sending Nonlethal Aid to Ukraine Military Holder: Americans Stand With KC Mourners