Tuesday, May 8, 2012

HB 1904: Calvinball in the Allegheny National Forest

Remember Calvin and Hobbes?  In the comic Calvin invented Calvinball, a game which the only rule was no rules and the game changed at Calvin’s whim, so long as he won.  A bill before the Pennsylvania House is my opinion an attempt to circumvent federal/state contracts, equally applied statutes and binding court decisions with a governmental equivalent of Calvinball.

On Wednesday, the Pa. State Assembly will take up HB 1904, a bill that in effect allows the state to strip the federal Department of Interior of their control of water resources in the Allegheny National Forest, despite that being one of the missions of the Forest Service in all national forests, an authority recently upheld by a federal judge.  Technically the bill amends the 1911 Act that allowed the federal government to create the forest out of what was then logged over brush.  The pertinent part of the proposed amendment:
(4)  No laws nor rules under this section may supersede, invalidate or modify the common law of the Commonwealth or a statute of the Commonwealth respecting any of following:
(i)  The storage, control, use or development of water resources in this Commonwealth or any riparian rights appurtenant and incident to water resources.
(ii)  The development, use or ownership of mineral resources in this Commonwealth.
Not surprisingly the bill has stirred up controversy, with opposition from groups such as Penn Environment, the Sierra Club and others. 

Due to the way it was established, the federal government does not fully control resources within the forest. Remember that national forests are not parks and resource extraction is not forbidden, in fact it a rationale for establishing various national forests was to responsibly manage resources. Since the forest was created within Pa.’s oil boom country, existing privately held mineral rights were excluded from the park’s control.  A court decision in 2009 and upheld in 2011 stopped the Forest Service’s new policy to block drilling in the Allegheny FS, a ban that was put in place as part of a settlement with environmental groups.  However the same decision only dealt with mineral rights and not access to water resources.  In the case of water, the Forest Service’s authority was upheld. It should be noted that the Forest Service is tasked with protecting water resources for the general public.

My take is that in order to circumvent this federal court decision, HB 1904’s sponsors are attempting to retroactively change the terms under which the forest was established.  The original Act they are trying to amend is part of a contract with the federal government, a contract that has been clarified by the federal courts.  It would be like the seller of a house trying to change the bill of sale well after it was completed and after a court decided terms were not to their liking.  They are also trying to strip control of water resources from the federal Forest Service.  To me this would be like a state trying to say the Coast Guard could not perform one of their lawfully assigned duties in a particular coastal region of said state.  Like I said at the start, it’s Calvinball.

Questions remain regarding the amount of lobbying behind this bill and who actually wrote it.

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