Natural gas drilling front lines move to highway billboards

This is my latest newspaper conservation column.

The ongoing battle between the pro-natural gas drilling people and conservationists who see and realize more value in a natural landscape not punctured by drill rigs and drill pads and heavy-equipment roads hacked out of former wildlife habitat have taken their respective campaigns to roadside billboards.

This is, coincidentally, something that would never happen in the Green Mountain State (where I sit) because nearly a half-century ago the people of Vermont wisely voted to permanently outlaw billboards and impose stringent limits on the size and height of business ID signs and such.

One recent billboard – the space bought and paid for by anti-drilling folks – makes its point with a collage of photos. One shows a drill rig and concrete drill pad, labeling the scene as a roadside “attraction.” And that spurs memories of a PennDOT placard on the southbound side of I-81 telling motorists of an attraction we know as “Humboldt Industrial Park.”

But back to the drilling biz. Punching holes into Earth across the Marcellus shale region is akin to bulldozing and paving more roads across Penn’s Woods. Sure, a handful of native wildlife continue doing alright population wise afer their habitat has been fragmented by roads, sprawl, cul de sacs, drill pads, and even airport runways. These include critters like the white-tailed deer and eastern cottontail. And skunks, raccoons and European starlings, too. Most of our native wildlife, though, suffers and their population numbers decline until, someday, the federal Endangered Species Act comes into play and a given species is approved for listing as a threatened or endangered one.

Naturalists don’t need a science degree in order to put the principles of “citizen science” to work and help gather the data showing such downward population trends. I have countless hours and days myself walking along the shoulders of rural roads – in Pennsylvania, Virginia and elsewhere – and counting the roadkill specimens found along the way.

A five-mile hike one year along the southern Delmarva Peninsula reach of Highway 13 sticks in mind for the horrendous slaughter I found; a toll most motorists are oblivious to as they race on to their next appointment, gas station, or motel room. On that day, my field notes remind, I found 15 dead turtles, many of them the species we know as the eastern painted turtle, their carapaces crushed by car or truck tires. Terrestrial wildlife like amphibians and reptiles seem, more often than not, to be the roadkill targets. But that’s only because they can only crawl, walk or slither so fast.

Here in Vermont, there is no shale formation underground, its rocks harboring natural gas. There is no danger lurking of a drilling rig suddenly showing up one day to start punching a hole into terra firma outside the front door. But through much of the mid-Atlantic region just the opposite is the case. And like much else these days, many people whose lives are disconnected from wild nature see only money when a drilling company rep knocks on the door.

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