Ag Committee Examines Forest Conservation Easements, PENNVEST Loan, Causer Says
HARRISBURG The House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, chaired
by Rep. Martin Causer (R-Turtlepoint), held an
informational meeting on Monday to discuss forest conservation easements and
recent PENNVEST actions that would finance the purchase of private forestlands
and place conservation easements on a portion of that land.
"The committee has worked on several issues related to the forest products industry this session, and after a number of questions were raised about the PENNVEST transactions, I felt it was important for us as lawmakers to learn more about them and the role of the conservation easement," Causer said. "We want to ensure we are doing what's best for the Commonwealth's taxpayers."
At meetings last fall and in January, PENNVEST approved loans totaling $50.8 million, at an interest rate of 1 percent, to Lyme Timber Company, a timber management firm based in New Hampshire. The funding will be used toward the purchase of more than 60,000 acres of private forest land in Cameron, Clinton, Elk, Jefferson, McKean and Potter counties. As part of the agreement, the company will place approximately 9,000 acres of the land into a permanent working forest conservation easement. The plan also includes an acid mine drainage abatement project amounting to about $700,000.
Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) Secretary Cindy Dunn told committee members the use of forest conservation easements was one of the top recommendations set out by the governor's Green Ribbon Task Force on Forest Products, Conservation and Jobs. The recommendation was aimed at addressing concerns about changes in ownership of large tracts of forestland and the potential impact of parcelization on the forest products industry and jobs. An easement, she noted, conserves the land while also keeping it in private hands and on the local tax rolls.
Causer questioned DCNR about whether the public would have access to the lands for hunting and recreation. According to John Norbeck, deputy secretary for parks and forestry, DCNR intends to make the lands within the easement open to the public. The remaining acreage is under private ownership and access would be determined by Lyme Timber. Causer indicated that was a concern to him since public money was used to help finance the purchase of those lands.
Dunn's testimony was followed by that of Brion Johnson, executive director of PENNVEST, who outlined the mission of the agency, which includes clean water efforts. He discussed the steps taken to review the proposal from Lyme Timber Company and to obtain confirmation from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that it would be eligible for clean water funds. In response to questions from Causer and other lawmakers, he agreed to provide the committee with information from PENNVEST legal counsel as to how the agency believes the transactions qualify for funding under state law.
The next three testifiers expressed concern about the use of public funds at a very low interest rate to support the purchase of these forestlands by a private business. Keith Klingler, president of the Pennsylvania Landowners Association, believes it was not an appropriate use of PENNVEST funding and argued subdivision is not occurring on large forest tracts. His bigger concern is with "government land sprawl."
Arthur Stewart and Tyler Martin, president and vice president of the Caledonia Land Company in Warren County, also indicated large scale timberlands are not being subdivided at "an unprecedented rate" and shared census data to support their position. Stewart lamented the use of a forest conservation easement in a region that already hosts vast amounts of state and federal land, saying it is another limitation to development opportunity. He also questioned the use of PENNVEST funds to benefit one private business owner over another.
Lawmakers posed a number of questions during the course of the meeting, many of which focused on the whether the PENNVEST loan to a private company to purchase private land was an appropriate use of public funds. Causer asked if additional proposals similar to the Lyme Timber proposal were in the works, and Johnson indicated there is one currently under review that involves land in Elk County. Johnson declined to share the application until it is presented to the PENNVEST board.
Members also expressed concern that PENNVEST was created to address, and should continue to prioritize, municipal water and sewer projects across the Commonwealth. Many communities are faced with deteriorating infrastructure as well as mandated upgrades, such as municipal separate storm sewer projects, and are in need of funding to support those efforts. Johnson indicated those projects are "front and center" for the agency.
Other issues discussed include the value of the timber on the land purchased by Lyme Timber Company, the number of jobs supported by the project, the potential for additional portions of this land to be placed in forest conservation easement status, the value and future use of the easement, ownership of mineral rights on the property and more.
For more information, written testimony and video of the informational meeting are available at www.repcauser.com/agcommittee.aspx.
?Representative Martin T. Causer
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Patricia A. Hippler
RepCauser.com / Facebook.com/RepCauser