(Warren PA) Litigation over land use on the Allegheny High Plateau region of Pennsylvania is enough to fill a book, or several. Starting with the inundation of sacred Indian burial grounds at Kinzua and proceeding with timber harvesting in the Allegheny National Forest, the area is currently under federal judicial inspection over oil rights as one national brokerage firm expects petroleum will reach $200 a barrel by year's end.
This is not the first time national attention has been drawn to this sparsely populated area which the Iriquois still call the Western Door to their eastern lands and recent political pundits have labeled "Pennsyltucky," because of its Appalachian and industrial characteristics.
When Colonel Drake drilled the world's first oil well in nearby Titusville, he came to Warren where a blacksmith invented the gear he needed. Since then, the culture of the American Industrial Revolution found a welcome home in Warren--much of it revolving around oil and its related manufacturing and chemical processing business. The area also prospers from weapons contracts, an outgrowth of its heavy industrial economy.
In 203-year-old Warren, Pennsylvania, which has been called one of the finest surviving Victorian communities in America due to its legacy of oil and timber wealth, the Allegheny National Forest is preparing to meet increased demand for land use by opening a newly constructed and expanded headquarters building next door to the county's only country club. At stake in the current federal lawsuit may be more than just oil rights. A judge's decision, sure to be appealed no matter the outcome, may give a preliminary indication of our nation's future as it faces a global recession while sitting on a veritable goldmine of economic development.
At one time, shortly after the Kinzua Dam was built six miles away in 1965, Warren's population was 15,000 and the county had nearly 45,000 residents. Since then the area has been decimated with the city population sinking to 10,000 and the county just reaching 40,000.
Timber and oil extraction in the Allegheny National Forest have pretty much come to a standstill, possibly due to an unfinished Forest Plan which the United States Forest Service had considered to be out of compliance with federal law. The currently approved plan did not adequately address environmental law, the USFS said. Problems this year started when local environmentalists filed formal objections to a flurry of oil and timber permits. Nearly every single acre in the Allegheny National Forest sits on top of mineral rights owned by private citizens who have legal rights to its access. But trees and roads must be built throughout the 500,000 acre woods to get to the mother nature under it. Environmentalists point to the hundreds of old-time oil wells that have yet to be cleaned up, nearly a century later.
Historically, the Allegheny National Forest was created after timbering and oil and gas extraction at the beginning of last century denuded the Allegheny Plateau region, destroying the watershed bringing economically disastrous floods downstream to Pittsburgh. The federal government purchased the land, restored the forest, and built a dam at Kinzua to stop the flooding. Eighty years later, the area has one of the world's most valuable stands of hard woods and untapped energy resources that could ameliorate the nation's current energy crisis, while at the same time bringing prosperity to American workers.
The Allegheny River Watershed is technically a part of the Ohio River Valley region. It extends from Chautauqua Lake in the north, from Potter County in the east, and to Pittsburgh in the south, encompassing two states: southwestern New York and nearly all of western Pennsylvania.
But federal purchase of the land removed about a third of Warren County's potential property tax base. Temporary timber subsidies to reimburse the loss have been stopped due to fights in Congress over the Iraq War and taxation of oil industry windfall profits. Warren used to get about $1.2 million. In Forest County next door, the local school district has been forced to adopt an austerity budget due to the loss of federal subsidies.
Local attempts to reclaim some revenue through tourism in the federally designated Wild and Scenic region have met with frustration as the local beach at Kinzua Lake and a public tourist office near the dam were closed two years ago, due to budget constraints for the Allegheny National Forest. Local volunteers are now trying to re-open the Kinzua Point Information Center, at least on weekends. At one time, traffic to Kinzua Dam backed up all the way to Warren, six miles away, on Sunday afternoons. Now the beach is deserted, tours to the dam are limited due to homeland security risk, and the once-bustling Kinzua Marina apparently has failed to prosper. A new owner there may be able to capitalize on the area's fame for record-setting Walleye, Northern Pike, and perhaps Muskellenge fishing but its success may be limited as long as the area's largest tourist draw next door is closed to the public. The Forest Service recently out-sourced some of its tourism work to a private company and has reached out to local county commissioners to become involved, with some success. Most tourism now centers around a facility owned by the state of Pennsylvania near Clarendon called Chapman State Park. This weekend, a 40-year-old outdoor group based in Warren is sponsoring a day-long hands-on clinic there to encourage residents and visitors to hike, camp, backpack, fish, and canoe in what residents still call "Kinzua Country."
While battle lines are being drawn, one local group feels it has found a way for the area to have its cake and eat it too. Friends of the Allegheny Wilderness, based in Warren, is in favor of oil and gas extraction and timbering as long as Congress sets aside 10% of the forest for wilderness. Currently, only 2% of the Allegheny National Forest has been set aside for this purpose (the only wilderness land in Pennsylvania) while the national average in federal forests is at least five times that amount. So far, Congress has balked on this middle of the road solution in which both sides would appear to win, but it did recently approve more land for study which administratively protects more acres.
Caught in the cross fire of the controversy is a $100 million project that some Warren residents have been working on for five years, the Allegheny Musarium. A combination living museum and freshwater aquarium the proposed 30-acre educational and cultural center may get built on Warren's western edge in Starbrick, Pennsylvania if supporters can raise a half-million dollars locally to get it off the ground. A recent, successful feasibility study was unveiled to about 70 of Warren's business and community leaders and supporters and a prestigious architectural firm is interested in building a green facility that one consultant said would bring another 200,000 tourists a year to this town of 10,000. In another study, a consultant hired by the county said that more than a million people a year already visit the area due to its natural attractions and that undeveloped tourism here already may have a $50 million impact on the local economy.
At a June 3 meeting held in the ballroom of the Conewango Club on Market Street in Warren, John MacIntosh, the director of the Warren Landmark Commission, recommended that the musarium drill a well on its property to furnish a public exhibit and to provide inexpensive energy for the facility. Although the idea was met with initial approval, the Musarium staff has since rejected the idea due to ownership considerations.
books For further reading:
The Agony of an American Wilderness: Loggers, Environmentalists, and the Struggle for Control of a Forgotten Forest
Written by a native of Ridgway, Pennsylvania
Wilderness Forever: Howard Zahniser And The Path To The Wilderness Act
Zahniser was a resident of Tionesta in Forest County next door
The Prize : The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power
A Pulitzer prize winning book written in 1992 by a member of the energy project at Harvard Business School.
The Allegany Senecas and Kinzua Dam: Forced Relocation through Two Generations
Written by a young anthropologist who lived with the Senecas
Kinzua: From Cornplanter to the Corps
by a local author
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