WaltAtwood | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Re: “Into the Woods Today

I am a native of Warren County. I grew up here, graduated from local schools and earned a degree at a nearby college campus, having worked here all of my adult life, and I have been a recreational trails volunteer in and around the Allegheny National Forest for many years. I am wary of this "wilderness" discussion. It's all about imagery and politics. People get this idea in their heads that once something is declared "wilderness", it is off-limits to development and nobody can touch it. Following this logic, the more "wilderness" is declared, the happier the environmental-minded interests will be. But there's a fly in the ointment: In July of 2006, U.S. Senator Rick Santorum was touring northern counties during his (now-doomed) re-election bid. Some of his appearances were taped and subsequently played on PCN, the Pennsylvania Cable Network. I happened to catch (and record) a rather strange appearance made by Santorum (on or about July 6) at a picnic table outside of the U.S. Forest Service's Marienville Ranger Station on PA Hwy. 66 in Forest County. I say the appearance was strange for several reasons: (1: There was no advance fanfare in the local media to indicate this appearance was about to take place. Not a peep about what was going to happen. (2: A United States Senator, all three Forest County Commissioners, and State Senator Mary Jo White (R-21st), and State Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-65th) were all there, sitting around a picnic table with nothing to eat on a sunny day wearing their "Sunday best". Lo and behold: were they being hosted by Rob Fallon, the Marienville District Ranger? (It is, after all, his office's campus) Nope, Ranger Fallon was nowhere in sight. Sitting at the table with this decidedly political cast of characters was none other than Forest Supervisor Kathleen Morse, decked out in full Forest Service uniform! (Morse is stationed at the Forest Supervisor's Office in Warren, at least a 45-minute drive from this picnic.) Now, I ask you: how's that for timing? (3: Everyone seemed to gush without hesitation about the importance of the Allegheny National Forest, the timber harvest, and especially oil and gas operations, to Senator Santorum. It was as if they had all of their talking points memorized in advance. I was left with the impression that someone knew of this impromptu foodless, well-dressed picnic along Route 66. (4: Among the topics "discussed" in the Senator's presence was the possible relationship of oil drilling operations and possible "wilderness". Forest Supervisor Morse stressed that she believed that even if a tract of land were bestowed such a declaration, oil and gas speculators would STILL BE ABLE to exercise their subsurface rights in the affected areas. So much for "wilderness". (5: With all of this well-articulated impromptu concern being expressed about assuring continued logging and drilling operations for Senator Santorum to digest, did anyone mention the needs of numerous recreational trail projects that seem perpetually stuck in limbo, or the poorly maintained U.S. Forest Service public facilities (especially restrooms)? Not a peep. Apparently, these poor, hapless, well-paid, well-dressed elected officials were all caught flat-footed by this unplanned, unrehearsed, unstaged impromptu event I just happened to catch with my VCR. I drew some conclusions from what I saw (and recorded) on PCN that day... (1: Nothing is ever as it seems on the Allegheny National Forest, especially at a Forest Service picnic attended by a select few who look like they're on their way to a funeral. (2: The funeral, by the way, is to mourn the loss of any hope that the Forest Service (whose motto is "caring for the land and serving people") is ever going to get serious about genuine multiple-use of the Allegheny. As it stands, the Allegheny is little more than a government tree farm/oil patch, with much of the territory gated shut to the public except during hunting season. Recreation is allowed in small doses that receive fleeting attention, and watershed protection is no longer even a joke. The bottom line? Logging and drilling get the red-carpet treatment. Any other use is strictly for appearances' sake. (3: Want to see a bunch of politicians fall all over each other to court your favor? Want to see the Forest Supervisor host a picnic along Route 66 and have it cablecast all over the state? All this can be yours if you play loggers & drillers version of Monopoly. (4: Seriously, though, I'm concerned that the Forest Service is manipulating everyone with the goal being to pit various interests on the forest against each other so the agency can escape accountability for their own practices. When will the Forest Service assert its powers to control the impact of industrial and ATV activities on the forest surface? Drillers and ATVs seem to destroy trails and little is done about it. If more "wilderness" enters the picture, I fear the conflicts will intensify on the remaining forest that isn't "wilderness".

Posted by Walt Atwood on 12/26/2006 at 8:41 PM

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