Surely we looked out of place. In a building full of suited people, most of whose body language and speech is formalized into the interlocking interests of the corporate government, we were sore thumbs. I was wearning a tee-shirt over my bike jersey, tee-shirt protesting the collusion of big oil and state government. Others were just wearing casual work clothes. One of us, a young woman from West Chester, PA was in her finest protest regalia that showed her “counter-culture” devotion. We were looked at askance by more than one person. And you have to wonder if it hurt our message to look so plain. My father-in-law wondered this quite a bit. I think maybe but not in a way that I think worth compromising in that visit.
We are common people from the commonwealth – Carlisle, Harrisburg, West Chester, State College, Julian, and other places. All but one of us was white. One of us was in a motorized wheel chair. We ranged in age from early 20s to late 60s. None of us were wealthy as far as I know. Our educational attainment may have been the one thing that separated us from the average. But I also know from people who wrote to me thanking me that we were there in spirit for many others. Elderly, disabled, rural, urban, activist, and non-activist people told me that they were so glad that someone was doing this. These are common people. So being the common person means representing yourself honestly and playing a game of airs and pretend. I am a father and a cyclist. I am not a politician or a lobbyist for a corporatized or governmentally “legitimized” group. I am me. We are us.
Interestingly, I saw paintings of our cultural heritage and a kind of classical Promethean humanism where men convene for the good of men.
Natural gas and pollution were conspicuously absent. No acid mine drainage streams. No strip mining. No massive deforestation. Nothing in those images seemed, at least at one glance, to show us the collusion between polluting and despoiling industries at the expense of the people. Just the triumph of reasoned men.
We walked to Governor Corbett’s office, a beautifully ornate room with gorgeous wood furnishings. We requested a meeting with the governor but were told by his assistant tat he was not in. The office assistant was joined by the same Capitol police officer who earlier told me that he had received an email about me. We asked to meet with the Chief of Staff. He was also gone. They were at a Gallagher’s Milk plant. Eventually we were offered the services of a woman who makes the executive branch work smoothly. Interestingly, she is from Bradford County where the impacts of Marcellus drilling are off the hook. Eventually, she connected us with Deputy Secretary for Legislative Affairs, Andrew Ritter who works with DEP and DEP Secretary Krancer.
We spoke with Ritter for an hour. We discussed natural gas drilling’s effects on water, air, and the forests, community health, and corporate influence in state government. We urged Ritter for a moratorium, for state forests and parks to be free of drilling, and an immediate severance tax. One of our submitted letters expressed the way that nuclear power harmed her family and neighbors growing up. Others referred to coal and strip mining. We are a fossil fuel addicted people.
Though we came to no real agreement on anything we were able to make our positions clear. And one of our group, a woman from Harrisburg who works with Clean Water Action, read aloud and submitted a letter that said that under the Pennsylvania Constitution that Governor Corbett is impeachable. It looks as though, however small, some people in the state have the same idea with an online petition to impeach him.
Ultimately I think that my position at this meeting is best articulated in the letter I submitted to meet with Governor Corbett. It is as follows:
Dear Governor Corbett,I wonder what would happen the concerned people across the state joined together on this. If they joined with Clean Water Action, the Forest Coalition, the Responsible Drilling Alliance, Trout Unlimited, their local hiking, mountain biking, or watershed groups and took matters into the hands of the citizens. We are creatures of Nature who need to live more sustainably on this planet. That means flourishing more harmoniously with one another and with the watersheds, rivers, lakes, forests, farmlands, and wilds all around us. We have so much to lose and gain. The gain is our health and life. The loss is the perpetuation of Marcellus Personality Disorder and its associated problems.
Thank you for working to serve Pennsylvania as our governor. I am writing to you to request a meeting with you on the afternoon of Wednesday March 9th, 2011 to bring some measure of better representation to the natural gas rush that’s gripped our state. I will be arriving at approximately 4 pm. Other people who have sent you letters requesting a meeting will be joining me. I, for one, will be riding my bicycle about 120 miles from my home in Pine Grove Mills to meet you.
You may wonder why I insist on meeting you on such short notice. Too many of us are not being heard. That includes people across the state who have already been negatively impacted, people who worry about our shared resources and especially the forests, and people who believe very strongly in a better quality of life.
Allow me to tell you a little bit of my story. When I was a boy, I played in Slab Cabin Run, a stream that flows down the Tussey Ridge south of State College. My friends and I loved that stream, clambering over rocks in our shorts from late spring to the fall. One day we built up the guts to go through the culvert that goes under Route 26 over the mountain to Greenwood Furnace and Whipple Dam State Parks and Shaver’s Creek. Beneath the hemlocks, we followed the stream up toward the headwaters just a few hundred feet from the Rothrock State Forest. We tramped around as adventurous boys do, throwing mossy rocks into Slab Cabin and picking up big sticks that were alternately the walking sticks of wizened old men or knightly swords.
On other occasions we played in a small spillway below someone’s backyard bridge. The other side of that little cascade housed a small brook trout area the homeowners built. Once, my friend Elliott and I found a snapping turtle on the sidewalk between our houses. With a combination of apprehension for our fingers and the self-assuredness of boyhood machismo, we picked it up, dropped it into a bucket and put it into that trout run.
Down West Chestnut Street, just below the headwaters, lies a yellow gate into some forest trails. When I was a kid we used to march up there to get to our favorite sledding runs. Dead Man’s Trail was our favorite with a tree right down the middle. When I was old enough to take long walks by myself and get around at night, I walked my dog in those woods. Today, that gate is 500 feet from my house.
For the last 10 years or more I have spent thousands of hours in the state forests. As a mountain biker, hiker, and camper, the forest is my second home. Rothrock is just outside my door. I know it is not currently on the gas market. But just two ridges to the west lies the Moshannon State Forest where 90,000 acres of state forest has been leased to gas companies. To my north lies the Bald Eagle. I travel by bike in the Forbes, Gallitzin, Sproul, Michaux, Tidaghton, and Tioga State Forests. The forests are my second home and they are the source of much of my health. They bring us all health.
They breathe for us. They filter our water. They bring us beauty. They are the homes of the glorious and diverse creation of Nature. In our state, they embody the flourishing Creation of which we are a very special part.
Our intelligence and our organization have brought the most amazing changes to this planet. But in our intelligence and our power we have not always done what ought to have done. In a quest to do what we can we have too often been shortsighted, impatient, and lacked moral clarity. I won’t bother enumerating a huge list of human-made disasters here because we know too many of them. But from the people of Easter Island who deforested their island to the utter devastation downstream of the Tennessee Valley Authority, powerful people have too often done “business as usual” at the expense of other people’s health, the integrity of their communities, our shared water, our air, the habitat we share with other organisms, and the glorious wilderness we have agreed not to touch.
From the collapse of Easter Island or the ecosystems in Tennessee there is something disturbing at work. How do a boy and his friends appreciate beauty if it doesn’t exist near him? How do those kids learn to live better with the other creatures of the Creation if what exists is the roar of a compressor station and the clear-cutting of the trees for a road that will crush the soil? What is the smell of thousands of uninterrupted acres of woods? What does a ridge top trail look like with its patches of sandstone cracked over the course of millions of freeze-thaw cycles?
Can that boy’s health be worth another gas well? Another one hundred gas wells? Another several thousand as has been estimated will come soon?
Is it worth terrifying a family by introducing evaporating benzene into the air he breathes and poisoning? Is it worth his waking in the night screaming with a pounding headache because people he will never know are allowed to use other people he will never know to extract gas from a formation of rock buried tens of millions of years ago?
That boy lives all around the state right next to thousands of mountain gap streams. This problem is not just in my backyard. It is in our common backyard.
Is this the price of progress? The destruction of our common resources that bring us a common good in our great commonwealth? I find it hard to believe that this is the right thing to do. Is progress in Pennsylvania to make it into a third world nation, where there is no justice and the people are not only ignored but hurt by a collusion of big industry and government?
Like you, I am a father. When I think of my son, Sacha, waking up in the night repeatedly because of a toxic environment, I shudder and grow very angry. I have talked to and had correspondence with people all over the state who have stories about their neighbor’s health. The headaches. The smells. The trips to the doctor. It is only a matter of time until we start seeing the long-term health effects caused by prolonged exposure to heavy metals like cadmium, barium, strontium, radium, and gross alpha. As you know, the recent New York Times articles have provided a wake-up call that cannot be ignored. Following former DEP secretary John Hanger’s recent statements, I would certainly hope that you are going to summon additional DEP power to sample all drinking water across the state for these toxins. Of course, there are other chemicals like benzene that need to be tested for.
We have to stop accepting ugliness and destruction in the name of progress. This is not progress. I am calling on you to focus on our forests’ and our people’s abilities to sustain themselves and each other.
I have to say that there is something else that really bothers me and thousands and thousands of others around the state, certainly those who will join me on Wednesday the 9th. See, we don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to donate to your campaign. We don’t have nearly $3,000,000 to contribute to total campaigns over the last 10 years in the state. We can’t buy airtime. We can spend millions to lobby the legislature, to tangle up regulation and regulators, or run create glossy pamphlets that we can dispense at public symposia. We can’t put gag orders into leases. We aren’t poisoning people’s wells and buying them water from elsewhere and shipping it to them. We can’t pay the price for this. On any level.
I am riding my bike to see you because it represents a way of being in the forest that is so much better than the natural gas industry. It is better for me and my health. From bicycling on roads, fire roads, and trails, I can go into communities and forests in a light way with small impacts on Nature and happy impacts on people.
Well…sometimes people honk at us. But the vast majority of businesses appreciate us coming to buy some food and people like talking to us and we to them. It is also a way of finding that peace of mind in myself. It’s a beautiful thing. Hunters get it. Fishermen get it. Hikers and campers get it.
Pennsylvania’s forests bring us great wealth. Not only do people gain the monetary benefits of our forest tourism; they get peace of mind, clean air, fresh water, beautiful trails, wild game from turkey to black bear, and the joy and thrill of being out in wilderness. I am a big fan of happiness…not in the empty bubble gum and pink hearts way but the kind of happiness that comes from meaningful and joyful experiences with friends and family in great places. The state parks and state forests are those places.
We, the concerned, must be heard and represented. We insist that you meet with us now because we aren’t being heard and you are OUR governor. Tomorrow, at about 4 pm, I and my fellows will request that you do the following:
a) Impose a statewide moratorium on new gas drilling;
b) Reinstate DCNR’s ability to perform assessments as per last October’s announcement;
c) Reinstate DEP’s ability to carry out air quality assessments from drilling operations;
d) Provide for the immediate testing of all drinking water facilities around the state to test for all chemicals associated with natural gas drilling process; and
e) Impose a severance tax on existing operations with accrued funds going back into some combination of environmental restoration, infrastructure maintenance, and local municipal and/or educational funding.
This will, I’m sure, be a lively and spirited discussion that might just mark the beginning. See, we believe in conversation and in the power of meeting face to face with those whom we have elected no matter their political persuasion. But to have that conversation, we need to be heard.
We hope you will listen to that little boy.
With great hope,
Peter Dawson Buckland
I know that a coalition is forming right now that hopes to organize people more effectively and demand better for our health, our neighbors, our water, our air, and our forests. You can bet that there will be more of this kind of action even as we wait to hear from Governor Corbett. We fully expect that meeting to come.
What will you do?