A couple of years ago, I dragged my wife to Pennsylvania’s Loyalsock State Forest to check out a stream called Rock Run, which flows through dense second-growth woodlands stretching across northern Appalachia. I was living in nearby Williamsport at the time, and she had come to visit from New York City, where she was born and raised. The allure of Rock Run was that we could drive up an old logging road and hop out of the car at the prettiest spots. We wouldn’t have to walk more than the equivalent of a few city blocks, yet in that span we could drink in the splendor of the wild, and experience solitude.
I remember the day clearly. It was spring, as it is now. As the forest enveloped my dumpy old sedan, we rejoiced at newly sprouted leaves of hardwood trees glowing in the dappled sunlight. We left the car on the side of the gravel road and ambled down an embankment toward the stream. The transparent creek water, which rushed by us as it plunged down the densely wooded and glacier-carved gorge, allowed a clear view of the rock bed. After a tour through two waterfalls, one that dumped out into a swimming hole beloved by locals, my wife vowed to come back in summer. Rock Run won over the city slicker.
One reason I was so determined to take my wife to this special place is because this piece of public land had been targeted for gas drilling, a.k.a. fracking. Two petroleum companies acquired the mineral rights to 25,000 acres surrounding Rock Run. One of them, Anadarko, planned to build as many as 26 parking-lot-size well pads (each of which would host multiple gas wells), along with a network of roads to access the pads and pipelines to ferry the fracked gas out of the area. The same factor — ease of access — that made Rock Run such an appealing recreation destination made it an attractive place to drill for methane.
I expected that drilling would destroy the wild character of Rock Run, because I’d seen the same thing happen in the Tiadaghton State Forest, where I was doing volunteer trail maintenance. What has happened to the Tiadaghton is a microcosm of what is happening to public lands across America — and what will keep happening if we don’t take action now.
Tranquil dirt roads in the forest were widened and paved to make way for caravans of big rigs and tanker trucks. Popular vistas were closed to the public, hiking trails rerouted. Four-acre gravel well pads and 12-acre water impoundment ponds, surrounded by cyclone fencing and “DANGER: RESTRICTED AREA” signs, were carved out of once-rugged wilderness. Drilling rigs poked through the canopy. Pads that were being drilled or fracked teemed with dozens of white pickup trucks and big rigs. Helicopters buzzed low overhead, delivering supplies.
It wasn’t just the loss of the area’s wild character that I found so unsettling. It was the loss of freedom. Just to access a vista overlooking Pine Creek, I had to check in with three different security guards, as if I were visiting the airport. Two guards wrote down my license-plate number. Security cameras recorded my coming and going in places so remote they lacked phone reception and didn’t appear on my map.
One guard blocked my access to a road that ended in a vista (plus a well pad), demanding that I show him my driver’s license. I insisted I had the right to pass, but he relented only when I gave him the card of the forest manager and said the district forester had assured me visitors could travel freely on the mountain. After parking at the vista, I got shooed away by the foreman and was flagged by a guard on my way back. When I relayed all of this to the forest manager, he insisted that the road was still public and should be accessible to all.
Portions of the Tiadaghton, and tens of thousands of acres of public forest across Pennsylvania, have, in the words of an irate forester I befriended, “been successfully privatized.” A security apparatus has sprung up to police land that is legally part of the commons — a place where generations of people have enjoyed the liberty to wander the woods free from encumbrances and scrutiny.
For the moment, a moratorium prevents the leasing of additional acreage in state forests and game lands in Pennsylvania. Nationally, President Joe Biden recently paused the sale of new oil and gas leases on federally controlled land and water. These are important first steps, but our commons deserve stronger, more durable protections. It’s time to follow the lead of the interstate Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), which recently voted to replace a moratorium on gas drilling in the watershed of the Delaware River — about 100 miles East of Rock Run — with a ban. The commissioners cited the need to protect a source of drinking water for more than 13 million residents across four states. New Jersey’s acting commissioner of environmental protection, Shawn LaTourette, also called the fracking ban vital for preserving the region’s recreational and ecological character.
The DRCB decision is one example of how the tide is turning against fracking. Bipartisan support for the industry has crumbled in the wake of widespread, grassroots climate activism. Most forms of renewable energy, like solar and wind, can now compete on cost with fossil fuels — a recent study found that America could produce 90% of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2035 without increasing wholesale power costs.
Unfortunately, even if Biden and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf turn their federal and state moratoriums on new oil and gas leases on public lands into permanent bans, drilling could still move forward in pristine areas that have already been leased. More than a quarter of Pennsylvania’s 2.2 million acres of public forest is potentially exposed to natural gas development. So long as our leaders lack the political will to nullify existing leases on public lands, we have to mobilize locally.
We can draw inspiration from Rock Run. In 2013, fracking was imminent. Anadarko had placed stakes in the ground where the well pads would go. But an alliance of environmental advocacy groups, the Save Pennsylvania’s Forests Coalition, organized a massive public awareness and grassroots pressure campaign, including a petition that collected more than 12,000 signatures, public hearings with sympathetic lawmakers from across the state that attracted hundreds of supporters, and a lawsuit. Eight years later, the area remains untouched. However, the natural gas giant EQT just bought all Pennsylvania assets formerly held by Anadarko (before they sold to Alta Resources). The fight to save Rock Run continues.
An employee for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which manages Pennsylvania’s state forests, confided to me that he didn’t understand why locals were so up in arms about fracking in the area. There are a hundred Rock Runs, he said. But to me, this fact only clarified why we need to save every Rock Run. I imagined 100 other reluctant Americans to whom, like my wife, these spots introduced them to the joys and feeling of absolute freedom only nature can provide. That freedom should be available to every American — including the future generations stuck with the consequences of our choices today.
Colin Jerolmack is the author of the new book “Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town” and a professor of environmental studies and sociology at New York University. @jerolmack