UPPER DELAWARE REGION — Just before the new year arrived, members of the Delaware Highlands Conservancy (DHC) received word that the non-profit accredited land trust had established guidelines concerning development of natural gas on DHC-protected lands in the Upper Delaware River region. The new guidelines govern amendment of its existing conservation easements as well as new easement donations.
A conservation easement is a voluntary but legally binding agreement between a landowner and a land trust. The landowner retains ownership and title to his or her land, but extinguishes development rights.
The exhaustive process of drafting the new guidelines resulted in the following conclusion: “Gas drilling and its associated impacts on infrastructure and natural resources are not compatible with our mission and the conservation goals we must meet to assure the long term protection of our lands, waters, and quality of life.”
Greg Belcamino, president of the DHC Board of Directors, continued in the letter to explain the organization’s view that natural gas exploration, extraction and associated impacts raise immediate and serious concerns.
“In all of our land protection, education and outreach efforts, we consistently recognize the importance of healthy lands and waters to our region’s local forest, farm, and tourism economies and to the rural quality of life residents of this region desire to sustain,” wrote Belcamino. “The conservancy’s mission of protecting the lands and waters of this region now and for future generations demands that we take an approach to natural gas development that is consistent with our immediate and long range conservation goals.”
In arriving at this position, the DHC researched how other land trusts were responding to considerations of the impacts of natural gas development on the conservation values of lands and waters over a period of several years. After thorough discussion, a set of guidelines was adopted to address that development in a way that assures the organization’s mission remains central to all of its land protection activities.
Challenges encountered during the process included finding unbiased sources of information and staying abreast of the rapidly evolving evaluations of the safety of gas drilling. “We were cognizant of the passion evoked by this issue, and yet we needed to remain focused on our mission and committed to our normal decision-making process,” said Belcamino. “At the completion of the process, the board was unanimous in voting to accept them.”
Belcamino notes that response has been “overwhelmingly positive” to date. “Our members and our supporters are dedicated to our mission to conserve the lands and waters of the Upper Delaware region now and for future generations,” said Belcamino. “Even members who may disagree with the standards set forth in the guidelines have told us that we have taken a positive step in adopting them.”
Roy and Joann Morsch, who own property in Wayne County that is protected through a DHC easement, decided against leasing it for natural gas development. “The more we learn about the process, the more convinced we are to not lease,” wrote the couple in an email. “We feel responsible for our own personal health and safety, and also for that of our neighbors and our community. The risks involved are not worth the risk of destroying our aquifer and the water source for millions of people. We try to live with respect for our environment and all the living creatures that share the land with us. The DHC should be commended for publishing its guidelines.”
The guidelines, along with a preface that explains the context in which they were developed, can be viewed in the online version of this story at www.riverreporteronline.com .
In the preface, it is pointed out that while other land trusts have issued “policies” that seek to reassure both pro-and anti-drilling factions, the DHC has taken a different approach. “We wish to make clear that we do not favor the introduction of gas drilling into our region. The conservancy protects land that possesses special conservation values; it would be incompatible with our mission to protect land in which those conservation values may be diminished by drilling and its associated activities and infrastructure.
“Whether drilling occurs or not, the conservancy will continue to accomplish its land protection mission, including education and community outreach that promote strong and sustainable relationships between people and the lands where they live, work and play.”
The new guidelines are the latest significant challenge that the DHC, which has protected 13,185 acres with 66 conservation easements, has met within the past year. In August 2011, the DHC was awarded accreditation from the Land Trust Alliance’s Accreditation Commission, placing it among a select group of 135 out of 1,700 land trusts in the United States to earn the seal adhering to national quality standards for protecting important natural places and working lands and for organizational operation and management.
Land trusts like the DHC have protected a total of 47 million acres—an area over twice the size of all the national parks in the contiguous United States. The DHC welcomes new volunteers and members. Visit www.DelawareHighlands.org , email firstname.lastname@example.org  or call 570/226-3164 or 845/807-0535 for more information.
Preface to Guidelines for Decisions involving Natural Gas Leases
The Delaware Highlands Conservancy (Conservancy) is an accredited land trust. We work with willing landowners and communities to protect the natural heritage and quality of life of in the Upper Delaware region. Although the Conservancy is not an advocacy organization, our Board of Directors recognizes that the advent of a pervasive industrial activity, such as drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation, is not compatible with our goals.
Our mission is land protection, and our work will continue even if gas drilling occurs here. Gas drilling complicates and compromises the Conservancy’s efforts to protect our region for future generations. For several years we have worked to craft a sensible approach to the threats posed by gas drilling. Other land trusts have issued “policies” on gas drilling that seek to reassure both pro- and anti-drilling factions. We have taken a different approach.
We wish to make clear that we do not favor the introduction of gas drilling into our region. But if it comes, we will continue to carry out our mission to protect the lands in our region that contribute most to its special character. To that end, we have adopted a set of guidelines to inform our land protection efforts.
The guidelines will inform the work of the Conservancy’s Land Protection Committee, which advises the Board of Directors on all land protection decisions and makes recommendations as to whether the Conservancy should acquire conservation easements on particular lands. The guidelines require the Land Protection Committee to undertake enhanced evaluation when considering properties where there are, or may be, gas leases, whether or not they permit surface disturbance. The guidelines also make it clear that our Board of Directors is the ultimate decisionmaker with respect to gas issues, and may reject any Land Protection Committee recommendation to protect land that may be affected by gas drilling.
The Conservancy protects land that possesses special conservation values; it would be incompatible with our mission to protect land in which those conservation values may be diminished by drilling and its associated activities and infrastructure. Only in cases of exceptionally important lands where there are assurances that drilling will have no impacts will we consider acquiring a conservation easement.
Much research, thought and deliberation have gone into these guidelines. We feel that they represent both a rational and a principled response to the threat our region faces.
The Conservancy promotes the extraordinary value of the region's working farms and forests, natural spaces and clean waters through education, partnerships and publications as well as through our land protection efforts. We seek to lead in connecting communities to these abundant natural resources, and to communicate the necessity of protecting them. We have endeavored to make our approach to gas drilling consistent with these goals.
These guidelines govern amendment of existing conservation easements as well as new easement donations. The Land Protection Committee will adopt procedures and criteria intended to ensure compliance with these guidelines.
1. Delaware Highlands Conservancy (Conservancy) will not enter into any lease for extraction of natural gas (including subsurface-extraction only leases) on any property owned by the Conservancy.
2. Delaware Highlands Conservancy will not accept new conservation easements for properties for which a surface-disturbance gas lease is in effect or accept a new easement that would allow for the donor or a subsequent owner to sign a surface-disturbance lease. However, if, in the judgment of the Land Protection Committee (LPC), the property is large enough, has extraordinary conservation values, and the terms of the gas lease would not permit activities that could impair those conservation values, then the Land Protection Committee may set forth the extraordinary characteristics of the property, describe the measures that have been or will be imposed to ensure that gas extraction does not harm the conservation values of the property, and recommend that the Board waive this prohibition and accept the easement. The Board may in its sole discretion reject the LPC’s recommendation and decline to accept the easement.
3. The Land Protection Committee may recommend that the Board accept an easement for a property if an area for surface-disturbance has been subdivided into a separate parcel or otherwise excluded from the restrictions imposed by the easement. However, the Land Protection Committee must in its recommendation describe the extraordinary conservation values of the property and set forth the measures to be required to ensure that the extraction activities do not impair the conservation values of the property. The Board may in its sole discretion reject the LPC’s recommendation and decline to accept the easement.
4. Upon recommendation by the Land Protection Committee, Delaware Highlands Conservancy may accept new easements for properties already subject to subsurface-only extraction leases (or subject to compulsory pooling). However, before accepting any such easement, the Board must be satisfied that sufficient restrictions are in place on the drilling site(s) and associated infrastructure to ensure that the extraordinary conservation values of the property are not impaired. The Board may in its sole discretion reject the LPC’s recommendation and decline to accept the easement.