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State, environmental group deal releases money for DCNR operations

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Friday, July 18, 2014, 1:30 p.m.
 

The state agreed to a partial settlement in a Commonwealth Court case challenging Gov. Tom Corbett's plan to lease more state forest and park land for natural gas drilling, Corbett's office said on Friday.

As part of the agreement, Corbett agreed not to lease more land until the court decides the case. In return, the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation agreed to drop its request for the court to prevent the state from using revenue from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund to pay for general operations at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

“Without this settlement, DCNR's capacity to preserve Pennsylvania's natural treasures would have been decimated,” Corbett said. “We cannot allow our commitment to protecting Pennsylvania's state parks and forests to be held hostage during the duration of this lawsuit.”

The foundation had asked the court to prevent new leasing of state-owned land and to freeze the use of existing funds for DCNR operations until the case was decided. Its lawyers argued that using the money generated from leases for purposes other than specific, limited reasons could be unconstitutional.

Under the agreement, the department will continue to prepare for leasing of state-owned land but not take action.

John Childe, lead attorney for the foundation, said the agreement establishes a “good and quick framework” to get the case decided, by setting a timeline for attorneys to file court documents.

Commonwealth Court is scheduled to hear arguments in October.

“I'm confident we'll get a decision by the end of the year,” Childe said.

DCNR Secretary Ellen Ferretti said that without the partial settlement, the department would have taken a $120 million hit.

The agreement, she said, “will allow the critical operations of DCNR to continue, including all state parks remaining open and staff being available during our busiest time of year, and no interruption to the work of our Bureau of Forestry.”

The bureau manages state forests, monitors gas development on forest land, fights fires and pests, among its operations, Ferretti said.

Corbett signed a budget this month that anticipates $95 million from expanded drilling leases in state forests and parks.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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