Marcellus Shale Landscapes: Can We Make Them Better?

This week past, I took the opportunity to attend the Marcellus Matters:  How Communities and Landscapes are Shaped workshop.     This was a fantastic workshop, and I’m going to share the highlights, avenues we can advocate towards improvements across the Northern Tier Region.

The workshop itself, was an extension of the work that has been ongoing in Sullivan County through an NSF grant that Penn State University received.   Part of what their grant project involves though this workshop and the previous which was a theatre based presentation, is to find ways to create discussion in the community, and get folks thinking.

This workshop was the culmination of work that the PSU Landscape Architecture Professors and Students have been doing this semester.  Before I venture any further, it is important to define what landscape architecture is.  This workshop was not a Drilling 101 or public health and safety related workshop. It really was more so focused on the Endless Mountain’s beauty and maintaining those aesthetics of the area we live in and love.     The Oxford Dictionary defines LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE as  the art and practice of designing the outdoor environment, especially designing parks or gardens together with buildings and roads. So, what we are asked to think about is applying landscape design practices to the Marcellus Shale infrastructure.  Thus without further adieu, here is my take from the three hour informative workshop.

While certain areas in the Northern Tier Region have already had considerable infrastructure placement, considered as part of the whole, Sullivan County has really been quiet.  Sullivan County doesn’t have quite 100 wells yet drilled and during these recent four years, they’ve only been averaging 21 spuds annually.  Thus, having such a workshop in Sullivan County provides them with an advantage  with opportunities to apply these concepts.  However, that does not negate the opportunities across our region with advocating for future development measures and even mitigation efforts at present  poorly sited locations.

One interesting aspect of the workshop was the interactive board exercise where several groups huddled around felt boards that contained fixed in place  ‘obstacles’ to planning access roads, well pads and gathering line placements.  The groups were given a scenario of landowner goals to meet, and setbacks existing in current regulation,  along with fixed locations of abandoned oil & gas wells, homes, drives, farm outbuildings, streams, floodplains, forested areas, wetlands, agricultural areas, roads and even a compressor station.  Participants got a feel for how difficult it is to determine suitable placements and ensure adequate consideration for future land-use, and public health and safety and environmental issues according to their priorities.  Glancing at the groups’ efforts, it was easy to see, there were no easy answers as each group had designed their placements of the access roads, well pads and gathering lines differently.

Now, the highlights.

Readily, often we can see from our homes and travels pipeline ROWs cut through our mountainsides.  What if there were ways to  better place these ROWs in order that they leave the ridge views, viewsheds and vistas intact?  Well that is exactly what was proposed by the students.  And, they not only proposed, but also demonstrated how this could be done by ‘fitting pipelines into the landscape’.  This is something that industry’s civil engineers planning pipeline routes in our region need to consider.  This is information our landowners need to create better routing through properties where scenic views are of important for another industry, tourism, as well as  retaining the flavor of the region we live in and love.

Another presentation involved protecting the viewsheds around the Loyalsock State Forest as well as advocating for more reasonable placements of well pads, gathering lines and other infrastructure.  It was pointed out there is already one poorly sited well pad less than 100′ from the popular Loyalsock Trail.  They also advocated for broad notifications for proposed infrastructure placed within one mile of the trail in order to better protect this popular regional resource.

Do you look out your window’s viewshed and where you once had a mountain view you now see white, brown or green tanks disrupting what was once a pleasant view?  Or do you see a metal building, industrial looking, sticking out of the landscape like a sore thumb?  Well, the students proposed camouflaging these accouterments, and demonstrated how it could be done.  To many of us, this is not a new idea, I know I’ve had suggested to me, and have been in conversations over the last many years with folks as these accouterments started sneaking into our landscapes.  C.O.G.E.N.T.  has even recommended ways to camouflage sites with native plants, shrubs and trees.  But, the students take this much further and demonstrated that by  studying the local seasonal colors  and accordingly painting tanks and metal buildings, that these accouterments are capable of being blended right into the landscape where they were not easy to distinguish.  Just imagine the possibility of  living within the gas fields and maintaining our local aesthetics.  We all have appreciation for our Region’s natural beauty.   I do think if landowners would’ve known about this possibility, when agreements were signed, provisions for such considerations would have been part of their negotiations.

Another amazing suggestion, was what about that old mining area near Mildred?  The students came up with an amazing proposal for re-creating that abandoned area into an eco-tourism spot.  A resort full of greenery, relaxation and activity, and sustainable.  A reclaimed area that would help balance the boom and bust times and provide economic development opportunities for Sullivan County.  What a vision they had.   Anytime anyone can come up with a proposal to improve a otherwise barren wasteland, it is an opportunity worthy of discussion and consideration.

One last item I have space for, is a presentation of what small and large shrubs and small trees could be planted as close as 5′ to a pipeline within the ROW.  WOW.  If only landowners knew of this when they were negotiating pipeline easements.  I’ve seen pipelines on DCNR property having small trees planted within the ROW.  However, when I had the opportunity to bring this up at a meeting earlier this year – that this should be done on private lands as well, the industry’s posture reflected that I couldn’t possibly have said anything more incredible.   I would like to point out, that here and there, mostly for stabilization purposes, some pipeline operators have either planted trees within the ROW or plan to so do.  Planting within broad ROWs, will provide some measure of control to prevent invasive species from gaining hold in these areas.

Professor Brian Orland, PSU faculty and students involved in this project are commended for the thoughtful consideration and ideas to assist Sullivan County in maintaining their aesthetic flavor.  These ideas may be used throughout our Region and it was encouraging to see Northern Tier folks and Planners from beyond the Sully Border in attendance.  A big THANK YOU to the fine folks at Sullivan County for sharing this workshop with all of us.

I for one, would like to see the gas industry seriously employ landscape design in their infrastructure sitings within our region.  It is the perfect extension of being a good neighbor.

Emily Krafjack, President