By Greg Vitali

The state budget agreement being finalized by Gov. Rendell and legislative leaders would have a devastating impact on Pennsylvania's environment.

Expected to be presented to rank-and-file legislators as early as this week, the agreement would slash the state Department of Environmental Protection's funding almost 25 percent and offer hundreds of thousands of additional acres of state forest land for natural-gas drilling.

In hard times, even important state programs must face cuts, and the 1.4 percent decline in this year's total proposed spending reflects that. But the disproportionate reduction in the DEP budget - from $229 million to $173 million - reflects an attempt to cripple environmental protection more than it does a good-faith effort to marshal scarce resources.

Even without these proposed cuts, the DEP has been forced to scale back important programs, such as those aimed at eradication of West Nile virus and black flies. In addition, the Keystone Home Energy Loan Program (HELP) is set to end in December.

If the cuts become final, as many as 400 of the DEP's 3,000 employees would be let go. This would leave insufficient resources to enforce the laws that protect the quality of our air, water, and soil.

In addition to the DEP cuts, the budget agreement requires leasing an excessive area of state forest to raise revenue. Although the specifics remain secret and have changed over time, the possibilities have included offering as much as 100,000 more acres of state forest for Marcellus Shale natural-gas drilling this year, and again as much the following year.

This much drilling would irrevocably damage the character of our forests. The drilling process involves using a high volume of water, as well as disposal of water contaminated by drilling. It would also require the construction of roads, sediment basins, and other infrastructure. All of this would disturb sensitive habitats and make our state forests less desirable to sportsmen, hikers, and tourists.

A reasonable amount of natural-gas drilling on state forest land is necessary to help our economy and access a needed resource. But it is important to note that about 660,000 of the 1.5 million acres of state forest in the Marcellus Shale play is already available for drilling. Using the best forest-management practices, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources - not politicians - should determine how much acreage is offered for drilling.

A better way to raise revenue would be to tax the natural gas from wells that are already leased. Almost every other state where natural-gas drilling occurs levies such a severance tax. To lease additional state forest land without imposing a severance tax would be fiscally irresponsible as well as bad public policy.

Legislative leaders are working to produce a final budget document that I and my fellow state legislators will vote on. When we do, let's remember that Pennsylvania's environment should not be compromised to solve short-term fiscal problems.