Across Pennsylvania, fishing and hunting resources are at risk. In recent years, Pennsylvania has become the epicenter for Marcellus Shale energy development in the East, as companies flock to the gas-rich area to drill for gas more than a mile below the earth's surface. Much of the shale gas development is happening in the upland forested headwater areas—the very places where sportsmen and women hunt and fish. More than 11,000 Marcellus Shale well permits have already been issued, and an estimated 60,000 Marcellus Shale wells are expected to be drilled by 2030.
With increased industrial development comes potential new threats to Pennsylvania's coldwater streams, including loss of forest cover and development on steep slopes, increased sedimentation from construction of new access roads and drilling-related infrastructure, and impacts to stream flows as a result of the significant water withdrawals for hydraulic fracturing and drilling-related activities.
Trout Unlimited supports responsible energy development, as long as the right safeguards are in place and the development is occurring in the right places. Still, some places have such high resource value and are so special to anglers, that drilling should be limited or prohibited. Below is a description of ten of these special places, why they are at risk, and how they can be protected.
1. Triple Divide: Pine-Genesee-Allegheny Headwaters Area
The headwaters of three famed tributaries—Pine Creek and the Genesee and Allegheny rivers—begin their descent from a 2,500-foot hill near Gold, Pa., each flowing downstream through its own unspoiled wilderness in northern Pennsylvania. In the heart of "God's Country," as it's called, this area contains some of the state's few remaining wilderness trout watersheds and a significant number of Class A Wild Trout and naturally reproducing trout waters.
Winding roads, steep valleys and dense forests create the rim of the Pine Creek Gorge—a prized-trout fishing destination that attracts anglers and tourists from across the East Coast. Slate Run and Cedar Run are among two of the iconic fishing streams in the Pine Creek watershed. Further south, Kettle Creek, Cross Fork, Sinnemahoning Creek and Hammersley Fork provide anglers with abundant opportunities to fish for wild and native trout, muskies and northern pike.
As Marcellus Shale gas development continues to spread across northcentral Pennsylvania, new access roads for well pads and water withdrawal locations are being built on the steep slopes of the Pine Creek Gorge, leading to significant erosion and sedimentation that has affected high quality trout streams. To protect the world-class angling opportunities available in the Pine-Genesee-Allegheny headwaters area, anglers are working with state officials to make certain that strict erosion and sediment control measures are in place and properly functioning before construction of well pads, pipelines and roads begin and that sediment control plans are enforced.
2. Minister Creek (Allegheny National Forest)
Located in western Pennsylvania, in the middle of the 517,000-acre Allegheny National Forest—the largest continuous tract of public land in the state—a small, scenic stream named Minister Creek is one of the best wild trout streams in the region. Part of its watershed falls within the Minister Creek Wilderness Study Area, an area currently managed to retain its existing wilderness values including a number of rock outcrops and riparian forests lining the Minister Creek valley.
During early spring, dozens of anglers can be found camped along the, waiting the first trout to rise at early dawn. Despite its popularity, Minister Creek offers a secluded wilderness experience for anglers seeking to connect with the stream.
More than 60 unconventional wells have been permitted in the Allegheny National Forest, some in close proximity to Minister Creek. Nearby shale gas development—and the new roads constructed for well pads, storage areas, impoundments and pipelines—may lead to increased sedimentation into the creek affecting the quality of this prized, coldwater stream. Recent attempts by the U.S. Forest Service to limit water withdrawals for gas drilling and to slow down drilling while the cumulative impacts of Marcellus Shale gas development are studied have been met with a number of legal challenges from private entities interested in extracting shale gas. The battle over who owns the water and how much can be withdrawn is likely to continue.
To protect the wild and native trout in Minister Creek, strict oversight of erosion control practices must be required and enforced. Additionally, the U.S. Forest Service should conduct a forest-wide strategy identifying where and when water withdrawals can safely occur without impacting streams and the aquatic life that rely upon cold, flowing water.
3. Laurel Hill Creek (tributary to Youghiogheny River)
In the Ohio drainage basin, in southwestern Pennsylvania, Laurel Hill Creek—a high quality coldwater fishery, with four exceptional value streams—is surrounded by state parks, forests and game lands throughout much of its 125-square mile watershed. Laurel Hill Creek joins the Youghiogheny River and Casselman River just north of the aptly-name small town called Confluence. Favored for its deep green riffles and runs, many anglers make the trek through the remote, scenic Laurel gorge to fish for brown, brook and rainbow trout in Laurel Hill Creek.
Concerns over low stream flows and water availability over the past two decades prompted the state to designate the Laurel Hill Creek watershed as a critical water planning area in 2010—a step that starts a process for evaluating groundwater and surface water usage to ensure sufficient availability for communities and for the fish that rely upon cold, clean water.
Shale gas development requires up to 5 million gallons of water per hydraulic fracturing job per well, and much of that water is coming from nearby streams. Unlike the Delaware River and Susquehanna River basins, the Ohio basin lacks an independent commission with authority to regulate how much water is taken from a stream. In this already water-stressed basin, the increasing shale gas development in the region, and the possibility that state lands surrounding Laurel Hill Creek will be drilled, creates additional pressure on this stream and its tributaries. In order to protect aquatic life and the stream’s fishing legacy, the state needs to establish a water withdrawal permitting system that ensures that any water withdrawals will not negatively impact stream flow levels or critical fish habitat.
4. Camp Run (Laurel Highlands)
In southwestern Pennsylvania, Camp Run—a Class A Wild trout stream, parts of which are designated exceptional value and high quality—flows through a steep, forested landscape into the headwaters of Indian Creek watershed. Hiking along the stream approximately a mile in from its only access point, anglers will find a remote wilderness experience and a variety of fish including native and wild trout. Camp Run is the only southwestern stream in Pennsylvania's Wild Brook Trout Enhancement Program, a program that permits year-round fishing with any tackle, but all brook trout must be released.
Situated between Roaring Run Natural Area and Linn Run and Kooser state parks, and just west of the seven other state parks that define the Laurel Highlands landscape, Camp Run is on the edge of shale gas development. Currently, there are more than 33 permitted wells within 6 miles of the fishing access area on Camp Run. An additional 450 permits have been issued for unconventional gas wells in Westmoreland County, and as state budgets tighten, there is increasing concern that state parks will soon become available for gas development. In order to protect the wilderness experience on treasured fishing streams like Camp Run, shale gas development should be limited or prohibited on surrounding state managed lands.
5. Upper Delaware (Northeast Pennsylvania)
Less than two hours from New York City, the Upper Delaware River watershed straddles the Pennsylvania and New York state lines and provides a wealth of hunting, fishing, trapping and other recreational opportunities for sportsmen and women from New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. A federally-designated Wild and Scenic River, the Upper Delaware is one of the best places to fish for wild trout in the East. The insect hatches are prolific and the trout are plenty on the Delaware. In addition to the coldwater trout fishery, the Delaware River and some of the larger tributaries are home to other important recreational fish such as striped bass, smallmouth bass, walleye, muskies, channel catfish and shad.
Flowing through picturesque towns and old-growth forests, the Delaware River watershed is home to diverse wildlife and game. The Delaware River is the economic lifeblood that sustains the region. Along with the neighboring Beaverkill, the East Branch, West Branch and the upper main stem of the Delaware River in New York, wild trout fishing generates over $29 million in annual economic activity for small rural communities—making the Delaware River the economic lifeblood that sustains the region.
Much of the private land in the Upper Delaware watershed has been leased to drilling companies.
The Delaware River Basin Commission—the inter-governmental body responsible for managing the river and its tributaries—estimates that thousands of gas wells will be developed in close proximity to the headwater streams of the sparsely populated upper Delaware Basin. Erosion and sedimentation from well pads, access roads, pipelines and storage areas constructed near headwater streams can impact trout spawning and aquatic insects upon which trout rely. Often, these headwater streams are the closest and most convenient source of water for the hydraulic fracturing process. Already, gas companies are looking to the Delaware and its tributaries as a source for water withdrawals.
The Delaware River watershed is one of the best trout fisheries in the East and provides 15 million residents of New York City, Philadelphia and others with drinking water. Currently, the Delaware River Basin Commission and New York state have placed a moratorium on drilling in the watershed. Before drilling is permitted in the Delaware River watershed, sportsmen and women are calling for a comprehensive, scientific assessment of the cumulative impacts of developing thousands of gas wells in the watershed, to ensure that irreplaceable resources are adequately protected. The results from the scientific assessment should determine: (1) where it is appropriate to site and place well pads; (2) the distance that needed between well pads to limit habitat loss; and (3) special areas where drilling and/or water withdrawals should be prohibited. Conducting comprehensive planning before drilling begins is critical to ensuring that the Delaware's hunting and fishing heritage is preserved and that valuable natural resources are not compromised.
6. Kettle Creek (Northcentral Pennsylvania)
The Kettle Creek watershed drains 246 square miles of Tioga, Potter and Clinton counties in northcental Pennsylvania and an estimated 70 miles of class A trout waters exist in the upper Kettle Creek watershed. Kettle Creek begins as a small brook trout stream that eventually grows to 40 to 60 feet wide.
Approximately 100 years ago, Kettle was a native brook trout fishery and a destination for anglers looking for big fish. Due to extensive logging in the area, the stream quality declined over time and Kettle Creek experienced a decrease in fish population, due to high stream temperatures and low-quality stream habitat. Pennsylvania's Growing Greener program helped fund over $1 million in watershed restoration projects here.
There is a 1.7 mile delayed harvest fly-fishing only section of the stream near the town of Oleana. This special regulation area of the stream provides good fly fishing during the summer months. Fish hold over well here due to the cool creeks that feed into the stream.
Kettle Creek begins in the Susquehannock State Forest in Potter County, and flows through part of Tioga County before meeting the West Branch of the Susquehanna River in Clinton County. Anglers and hunters flock to the region for a quiet sporting experience in one of the most wild sections of the state. Marcellus Shale development threatens that unvarnished experience. With more than 40 wells permitted within a 4-mile radius of the headwaters of Kettle Creek, the industrial footprint of the industry has the potential to mar the sporting experience here for years to come. New roads developed for truck travel through existing wilderness will alter the landscape and habitat and cause irreversible damage to the area. Erosion and sedimentation from industrial-scale traffic will adversely affect the surrounding area. Much has been invested in the restoration of Kettle Creek and these stream improvements would be threatened by any nearby large-scale industrial development. To prevent further damage to the Kettle Creek watershed, certain areas—such as the lands that surround critical headwater streams—should be off limits to gas drilling.
7. Stonycreek River (Southwestern Pennsylvania)
The Stonycreek River flows through the heart of coal country, in the southwestern part of the state, in Somerset County. Abandoned mine drainage greatly impaired the river for many years. After millions of dollars and years of restoration, the river is once again a valuable trout fishery and was recently named the 2012 Pennsylvania River of the Year by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers.
The stream has been stocked with trout since 1981 by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. The river's upper gorge, from Glessner's Bridge downstream is now exclusively managed under the fingerling stocking program. Browns, rainbows and brook trout can be found in the river.
The river has greatly improved over the last 25 years and has made a dramatic recovery from the effects of abandoned mine drainage that reduced water quality and fish populations in the river. Due to the amount of investment and restoration that has gone into improving the river, it is important to protect this river from any Marcellus drilling threats. The river has already rebounded from the effects of natural resource extraction—and sections of the river still bear the scars of the effects of coal mining and can't support fish and wildlife. It's important that the Stonycreek River be protected from Marcellus development.