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In a turnaround from its earlier stance, the North Branch Land Trust has opened the door to natural gas drilling beneath the Wyoming County property the trust pledged to conserve.

The trust's executive director says the change allows the nonprofit organization to keep drilling companies off the surface of the land. But one of the trust's founders believes leasing pristine land for subsurface drilling, a practice that has the potential to ruin it and neighboring land, is unethical.

In 2003, Ernest Howland passed away, willing his 667-acre property on the Vosburg Neck - 1,000 acres of land around a curve of the Susquehanna River in Washington Township - to the North Branch Land Trust.

The Howland Preserve, which the trust owns outright, is in the midst of some of the most desirable land for natural gas drilling in Wyoming County. One of the highest-producing wells in the state - one drilled by Citrus Energy in partnership with Procter & Gamble - is next to the property, "right at our back door," North Branch Land Trust Executive Director Paul Lumia said.

Chesapeake Energy Corp. made the land trust a verbal offer of $4,000 an acre plus 20 percent of the royalties to lease the Howland property, but the board turned it down in June 2010.

In July 2010, the board adopted a policy on subsurface fossil fuels and mineral extraction. It included a clause reading, "Due to the current status of state and federal laws and regulations governing the industry and the current conditions in the industry in general, NBLT will not consider any form of lease agreement for the extraction of fossil fuels, minerals or any other subsurface resource under any NBLT owned properties at this time."

A few weeks ago, the trust's board changed the policy to exclude that clause.

Lumia said it was because gas companies want to drill on the Vosburg Neck on land not owned by the trust. If the trust has the ability to negotiate with the companies, it might be able to stop them by offering to consider a non-surface lease. That means a company could drill under the land, but not on it.

"Our policy always was we would consider it on a case-by-case basis," he said. "We decided we better be a player in the game if we are going to stop physical drilling on the properties around us."

The trust's board hasn't signed a lease, although there was interest from gas companies, Lumia said. He admitted that, as a small nonprofit, the money from a subsurface lease would be very significant. It could help the organization become financially stable and do more conservation projects, he said.

But due to a surplus of natural gas, companies recently have slowed drilling. The trust is waiting them out, and may not even need to sign a lease, Lumia said.


Although he has been off its board for a year, Douglas Ayers is one of the founders of the North Branch Land Trust. He's also a founder of The Lands at Hillside Farms, which is a completely separate entity from the trust.

Hillside Farms' board turned down a gas lease, and Ayers wants the land trust's board to do the same.

He is concerned that hydraulic fracturing, in which millions of gallons of chemical-treated water are forced thousands of feet underground to open cracks in the Marcellus Shale and release its gas, could pollute not only the water at the Howland preserve but the land around it.

"I think it's extremely immoral for anyone, a private citizen, even someone who's going to lose their property, to allow gas drilling if there is a chance they will damage their neighbor's property," Ayers said. "I would rather lose my property than hurt other people."

He cited examples of water contamination ranging from the state of Wyoming to the township of Dimock in Susquehanna County.

Ayers doesn't deny the need for natural gas, saying, "I really feel like we're enslaved to other countries over this. I want a solution."

But he says it's naive "to think you can punch a hole a mile underground … pour in one of the most toxic substances known to mankind and not think it's going to come back up."

Asked whether allowing natural gas drilling conflicts with the NBLT mission of land preservation, Lumia replied, "That's the $64,000 question. Yes and no."

It's a dilemma the a land conservation organization's board is struggling with, he said. Keeping the drilling rigs off 1,000 acres of land is "sort of the better of two evils," he believes.

There is no doubt that natural gas drilling is "totally an industrial operation," Lumia said. "It does not go hand in hand with land preservation," he admitted.

Ayers said the gas companies are using the idea of drilling in the Vosburg Neck as leverage to get the land trust to sign a lease.

"One thing is not debatable: Ernie Howland would never approve of what they're doing. Period," he said. "He trusted us because we were a land trust. Not a gas trust. A land trust."

Howland's gift

Ayers said he and four other environmentally minded Back Mountain residents met in 1993 to talk about creating a local land conservation organization.

The trust, known until 2000 as the Back Mountain Regional Land Trust, was incorporated in February 1994. Its goal was to preserve as many acres as possible, mainly through conservation easements, which are agreements between a conservancy and landowner that limit the type or amount of development on a property. The landowner retains ownership of the property, while the conservancy enforces the agreement in perpetuity.

Ayers said the founders spent years trying to get the nonprofit trust off the ground.

"We didn't know if anybody would preserve anything," he said. "We gradually grew the organization by convincing members of the community that we were worthy of their support."

It was a success: membership grew to more than 400, and the trust now has agreements to protect 10,831 acres in Bradford, Columbia, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Sullivan, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming counties.

One day an attorney from Wyoming County called, and Ayers said the trust gave her an information packet. She delivered it to her client, Ernest E. Howland, who was on his deathbed.

Howland, a Newark, N.J., native, graduated from New York University and worked as a gift and antique buyer for New York City department stores, according to his obituary. When he retired, Howland came to live on Riverside Farm, the property his parents had bought in Wyoming County.

Ayers said Howland's estate, which included the 667-acre property and the collection of antiques he had accumulated during his travels, was worth between $3 million and $4 million. When he died on June 3, 2003, he willed it all to the trust.

"This man (Howland) was very clear to us that … all of this gift was meant to protect this property. He did not want it to go for other endeavors," Ayers said.

Ayers, who was chair of the trust's board, recommended using some of the Howland estate money to hire an executive director for three years to raise funds to endow the entire trust. The board agreed.

Ayers now regrets that recommendation: shortly afterwards, the great natural gas rush began.

In 2009, Wyoming County had only two Marcellus Shale wells. By 2011 there were 74, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Continuing conflict

Ayers said the land trust's executive director and many of the people he recommended adding to the board favored signing a mineral rights lease for the Howland property immediately. One member even wanted to allow drilling rigs right on the property.

"I ruined this organization and I didn't even know it," Ayers said of allowing pro-drilling people on what he characterized as a previously "green" board. "I didn't know gas would be discovered."

Board members repeatedly clashed over the idea of a nonsurface lease, he said.

Ayers suggested a poll of the trust's approximately 400 members. It turned out 23 percent did not want the trust to ever sign a natural gas lease; 34 percent felt it was all right as long as it was a nondevelopment lease; and 43 percent wanted the trust to wait to see if drilling was safe. Shortly afterwards, the board created the original drilling policy.

Lumia said the trust has to cooperate or collaborate to some extent with the pipeline and gas companies, because more and more landowners who have conservation agreements with the land trust have signed on with the companies for subsurface drilling or pipeline rights-of-way.

In fact, Lumia said the land trust just turned aside $75,000 from UGI to run a pipeline the utility company is running from Mehoopany to Plains Township through the trust's land.

"We said no, that's blatantly surface disturbance," he said.

Lumia said the potential for water contamination by natural gas drilling, including by substances dredged up from deep underground like radioactive material and brine, is "certainly" an issue. That's why the federal Environmental Protection Agency is doing a long-term study on the effects of hydraulic fracturing, to see if the fluids do migrate.

But it will be months before the study is complete.

Regarding what lies ahead for the trust, Lumia said, "It's a crapshoot. It really is."
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