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Oil, gas lease spending debated at Pa. Fish and Boat Commission meeting

| Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, 10:39 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania Fish and Boat commissioners tweaked one of their policies Wednesday but not in the way John Ball was hoping.

Ball of Zelienople is president of the Hereford Manor Lake Conservancy and Watershed Group, a nonprofit dedicated to rebuilding a lake on the site of the former Upper and Lower Hereford Manor lakes.

Those Beaver County impoundments, previously among the most popular in the state because of their stocked trout, were drained in 2012 after their dams were deemed no longer safe.

Both sit empty. Fish and Boat Commission officials have said they want to build a new lake at the site but don't have the estimated $12 million that it would take.

The commission is leasing rights to the oil and gas below its Hereford Manor property. That netted a one-time up-front payment of $1.346 million and a $224,250 “conservation donation.” It also will earn 18 percent royalties on the oil and gas mined.

That won't necessarily benefit Hereford Manor, however.

In adopting an oil and gas leasing program in 2011, commissioners mandated that all revenues go into a dedicated fund, earmarked specifically for high-hazard dam repairs. But money generated at a site doesn't have to be spent there. It can be used on any of the nine dams statewide in need of repair.

“We note that one of the (commission's) criteria for assigning priority for dam repair includes ‘funding commitments by local partners,' ” Ball told commissioners on Wednesday. “We respectfully suggest to you that the gas beneath the feet of the residents of Beaver County represents that funding commitment by local partners.

“Please don't ask the local residents to deal with the inconveniences of drilling in the Beaver County area without reaping the benefits from the sale of those resources.”

He suggested the commission tweak its policy and allow enough of the revenues earned at Hereford Manor to cover the design and engineering work on a new lake. That might open the door to Gov. Tom Corbett authorizing money through the state's capital budget, he said.

Commissioners did not ask Ball questions or offer comment.

They did, however, give executive director John Arway the authority to spend $192,761 of the money previously set aside for dam repairs on payroll.

The commission is facing a $9 million budget shortfall that needs to be addressed by July 2015. One money-saving idea the board is expected to address this week is a proposal to lay off nine seasonal, semi-skilled workers, several of whom work in Western Pennsylvania.

Arway said he decided that work needs to be done, so he asked the board to let him pay for it out of oil and gas money. Commissioners agreed unanimously.

One, Len Lichvar of Somerset County, said the work those crews perform is vital, especially in regards to keeping anglers and boaters coming back to the water. If it didn't get done, he said, “this will all damage and tarnish the commission's standards and appearance to the public eye.”

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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