Much has changed in the Lycoming watershed since unconventional oil and gas exploration ramped up over the last 15 years—in terms of ecological deterioration, as well as the deterioration of locals’ attitudes toward the industry.
At first welcomed by many as a chance for financial gain through mineral rights leasing, some community members—especially those whose families have lived in the area for generations—watched their land drastically degenerated and their sovereign land rights eclipsed by industrial encroachment they did not foresee.
Between 2011 and 2018, unconventional oil and gas drilling—notably, hydraulic fracturing—transformed sections of forest and farmland into comparatively gritty industrial zones.
“They were assured that, after the drilling phase was completed, they would hardly know the wells were there. They were also told that they had to decide quickly, and that everyone around them had already leased. A local anti-drilling advocacy group tried to warn them, but many locals distrusted environmentalists.”
As author and professor Colin Jerolmack references in his recent article for The New Republic, some landowners who willingly leased their mineral rights to oil and gas companies now view the industry’s activities with consternation. Incessant noise, traffic congestion, and foul odors have tarnished the once peaceful countryside. Even more disconcerting for property owners, the industry often operates however they please, with little consultation or consent—making some feel that they have lost their decision-making power and agency.
This disaffection potentially makes room for environmentalists to find common ground with those who embraced the industry, couched not in anti-fracking sentiments—and not necessarily in the essential need to mitigate the climate crisis—but in their shared love for the land.
Another big ecological concern in the punctured watershed centers on the fragile Eastern hellbender populations. Five conservation groups filed a lawsuit on July 1, 2021, challenging a 2019 decision to deny the amphibian protection under the Endangered Species Act.
“The hellbender is an ancient species that deserves better protections,” said Betsy Nicholas, Executive Director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, one of the groups involved in the lawsuit. “The hellbender reminds us that we all live downstream. As the upstream tributaries are disturbed and polluted, the hellbender disappears. And the same pollution flows downstream to our populated areas, threatening the use and enjoyment of our rivers. We need to pay attention to what happens to the hellbender.”
Once widespread across 15 states, Eastern hellbenders have been eliminated from most of their historic range and continue to face many threats, including low water flow and poor water quality, increasing water pollution, deforestation, residential development, mining—and of course—oil and gas development.
Peter Petokas has been studying Eastern hellbender populations in the Lycoming watershed for 16 years. He is very concerned for the future of the species in the watershed, which holds one of the richest populations in Pennsylvania, concentrated in one of the few remaining streams with optimal water quality. Even so, a drought in 2020 left the area’s waterways with very low flows, which constrains the hellbender’s habitat and stresses the population. Because they lack protection under endangered species status, agencies may be remiss to implement enhanced regulations on discharges and withdrawals in the basin. Petokas remains hopeful that the pending lawsuit against the US Fish & Wildlife Service will restart an assessment for federal endangered/threatened species protection.
“If there’s ever a spill of anything, it’s the end, it would wipe out one of the best hellbender populations in Pennsylvania,” Petokas said.
Besides concerns about low water levels, the watershed is losing tree cover along streams to invasive insects and erosion. Riparian species like ash, sycamore, and river birches provide shade and keep the water cool enough for hellbenders to thrive.