If Trees Could Talk They’d Say “Burn Natural Gas, Not Wood”
The Delaware Riverkeeper and friends have gone hyperbolic over the Tennessee Gas Pipeline upgrade of its natural gas pipeline through Pike County, claiming all sorts of forest disasters from this project intended to deliver more inexpensive energy to New Jersey. But their real goal isn’t to protect trees or rivers, but to stop natural gas development anywhere and they’re paid to do it.
“Serial protestor” Alex Lotorto and the Delaware Riverkeeper, the arch-typical representative of old monied special interests determined to keep the upper Delaware River Valley in pastoral poverty for the sake of a purist environmental vision, have been targeting the Tennessee Gas Pipeline project the last couple of weeks. What a farce it’s all been. We’ve heard about “rivers that speak to us,” “old growth forests,” men in trees and assorted other absurdities, none of which mesh with the facts.
Facts don’t matter much to these folks, of course. They go to the beat of a different drum and are darned proud of it. Well they should be, because it works for them, up to a point at least. They instinctively realize what the philosopher Blaise Pascal said three centuries ago: “All of our reasoning ends in surrender to feeling.” If you can, in other words, reach people emotionally through their imaginations, all the facts or logic in the world don’t matter.
There is a caveat to that worldview, though, and it is that feelings ultimately must give way to truth, but it can take generations for truth to emerge. Fortunately, the truth is emerging on natural gas and its role in meeting our energy needs. It is proving to be not only cost-effective, but also environmentally sound, but you wouldn’t know from the activities of the Riverkeeper or its serial protestor friends. Let me go where angels fear to tread and offer some reasoning to counter some of these feelings that seem to have taken over the airwaves and the news pages these last few days.
The nature of these feelings is, perhaps, best characterized by this notice appearing on the Delaware Riverkeeper website promoting a “Vigil for the Trees” (emphasis added):
Since Tennessee Gas Pipeline (TGP) began cutting pristine forests in the Upper Delaware River Basin on Feb 15 to build a dirty fracked gas pipeline, citizens have continued to speak out and stand up to Kinder Morgan and to urge the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) to step up and reopen the Northeast Upgrade Project pipeline before all the trees are cut.
As thousands of trees and forests get chainsawed for fracked gas – the community is coming together on Friday for a Vigil to Mourn the Losses of these ancient elder trees and to build resolve and community at this difficult time.
The hilarity of this message begs for a humorous response but, sadly, there is a very vocal minority actually wedded to these false notions, so we must attempt to dispel them, recognizing this all but impossible, given Pascal’s wise observations. Let’s start with the nature of Pike County’s forests, which the Delaware Riverkeeper variously describes as “70-year old trees,” “100 year old mature forest” and “old growth.” A good view of this forest may be found in this picture from the Riverkeeper website, which memorializes a pipeline tour by some trespassing project opponents:
The first thing anyone who has actually grown up in northeastern Pennsylvania will notice about this picture is that there isn’t an “old-growth” tree anywhere in sight. The only trees visible in this picture, and there are thousands, are basically miscellaneous oak species (e.g. Chestnut Oak) often popularly described as “scrub oak” and one lone evergreen. One will also notice there is very little understory of the sort that supports wildlife. It is the pipeline, in fact, that will support deer and other wildlife as it grows briars and browse and creates corridors for these animals.
The Delaware Riverkeeper bemoans the fact the pipeline will supposedly disturb up to 450 acres of forest, but the U.S. Forest Service Forest Inventory Analysis (FIA) for Pike County indicates total forest cover in that area grew by roughly 18,2500 acres between 2007 and 2011. This means forest removal associated with the project accounts for slightly over one percent of forest added over the last five years; hardly a significant impact. Moreover, the FIA indicates more than 80% of Pike County trees are under nine inches in diameter; hardly a mature forest, let alone an old growth one.
Here is how the Pike County Soil Survey (1969) describes the county’s forests:
In general, the soils in this county have low natural fertility and moderate to low available moisture capacity. Repeated fires during the early part of this century, and the practice of cutting the best trees and leaving the poorest, have left the woodland in poor condition. At present, the stands in many wooded area are made up predominately of gray birch, white birch, chestnut oak, scarlet oak and red maple. Trees grow very slowly on many of the soils in the county.
Less than 1 percent of the forested acreage in this county consists of soils that are excellent for woodland sites. Other forested acreage is classified as follows: good sites, 35 percent; fair sites, 53 percent; and, poor sites, 8 percent.
It’s also interesting that Pike County’s Chestnut Oak forests have been particularly vulnerable to gypsy moth infestations over recent decades and one is expected this year. This caterpillar loves the oak leaves and it has periodically decimated Pike County forests, requiring spraying programs to control these munchers. A book entitled The History, Biology, Damage, and Control of the Gypsy Moth, in fact, notes this about a 15,880 acre tract in Pike and Monroe Counties:
Of all the trees (six inches or more in diameter), in this area 900,000 or 57% were dead from the gypsy moth defoliation.
Fighting this battle actually takes a combination of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, as this depiction of the 2009 state spraying program indicates, and you’ll notice Pike County was the eastern front.
Given this background, you’d think the Delaware Riverkeeper, if it’s so determined to fight on land rather than the sea, and is truly worried about forest health, might focus on this tiny green caterpillar and some of the other infestations that are actually killing a lot more trees than are being downed by those Tennessee Gas Pipeline chainsaws. It brings in the chainsaws, of course, to conjure up images of massacre, as if cutting a tree was somehow like a horror movie scene.
The real horror show, though, as any longtime resident can attest, is driving down a road through the woods in Pike County during a gypsy moth infestation and hearing the sound of all that green slime being created as you squash millions of the little tree killers who are falling from the branches of their victims, having engorged themselves on the leaves of these soon to be dead “ancient elder trees.” That’s why there are an estimated 1,484,541 dead “other white oak” trees in Pike County, according to the Forest Service, nearly 18% of all such species. It’s those killer caterpillars.
The trees aren’t “ancient” or “elder,” of course. There are pine trees in Pennsylvania that are 350 years old. That’s old. Chestnut Oaks of 70+ years age or literally “babes in the woods.”
The facts, therefore, don’t support the tearful narrative or the vigils. No one who really wanted to support tree preservation would worry about natural gas or pipelines. Rather, they would focus on gypsy moths and other infestation threats. They might even recognize natural gas as a blessing because it disturbs so very little land with so much economic and energy return in comparison. Imagine if we tried to provide that energy from wood, for example, which is a renewable resource, after all. Dave Parker addressed that earlier on these pages. The funeral pageantry connected with a vigil for those trees would have to be on the order of mourning over Princess Diana’s death, I expect.
None of the ginned up wailing over trees has anything to do with what the Delaware Riverkeeper or Alex Lotorto are about, however. That’s just the gimmick used to garner attention; an appeal to shallow sentimentality, an appeal to the naive to breathe in deeply and inhale the unreality. Lotorto’s mission is very narrow and aptly summed up by his own website; Stop the Tennessee Pipeline. It includes this graphic:
It’s not exactly clear who the “one man” is. It’s could be the guy in the tree, or, more likely, it’s the elderly resident with a home in Belize who Alex says share’s his mission, but, any reading of the website will leave no doubt in the reader’s mind as to that one man Lotorto admires most – himself. Here’s how he quotes his hero:
Milford resident Alex Lotorto says “Having done tree work as a grounds technician and as a union delegate for the IWW, I am first and foremost concerned about these workers’ safety. They are my union brothers and although their job threatens our livelihoods, our highest goal in this campaign is safety for everyone. I want TGP to treat these contractors with the respect every working person deserves.”
Well, I’ve met some of those workers and I must say they didn’t seem impressed with Alex and didn’t cater much to the idea of him representing their interests. I also suspect, given the chance, most would gladly chainsaw that tree after giving the protestor 15 seconds to come down out of it, not that any company would allow it. But, of course, that’s what Lotorto always does as a serial protestor – insert himself into situations and grab publicity.
The Delaware Riverkeeper is also driven by a penchant for publicity, as any visit to that website will make clear. Maya van Rossum is the voice of the Delaware Riverkeeper and is pugnacious to a fault, an admirable quality when one isn’t engaged in the raw sort of demagoguery the Delaware Riverkeeper pursues. She and Tracy Carluccio are the two paid principals of the organization, according to the latest 990 return. The board is chaired by Debby Colgan, sister of Tracy Carluccio, and prominent opponent of Pennsylvania Act 13.
Maya makes a big deal about the way her $1.3 million operation is funded, offering this explanation (emphasis added):
DRN acquires its funding primarily through grants, donations, and memberships. DRN refuses corporate donations. Van Rossum insists that the DRN “would never be influenced to change our positions on an issue because of a corporate donation but the perception matters a much as the reality. Not everyone knows us so well and it could raise the appearance of impropriety or influence if we were to take those dollars …we are here for the river, not for corporations.” Despite the DRN’s refusal of corporate donations, they still succeed at reaching their annual budget of around $1 million.
Putting aside the self-righteous stance, the truth is somewhat less clear. The Riverkeeper’s funding stream in 2011 consisted of approximately $25,000 in dues and $93,000 in government grants, leaving over $1.1 million that came from other contributions and grants. Among the recent grants are one of $40,000 from the Heinz Endowments for “education of and networking with local residents and towns regarding natural gas development” and $65,o00 from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation for “general operating support and to protect the Delaware River and communities from toxic discharges, damaging floodplain development, use of dams for flood control, river deepening, Marcellus Shale gas drilling, and exploitation fisheries.”
Now that’s interesting in its own right as it demonstrates the Riverkeeper’s actions are not so much about the river or the trees, but, rather, stopping natural gas development to please its funders. Still, when you realize the “R” in the second foundation’s name stands for Rockefeller and the Chairman is Christopher J. Elliman, the Chief Executive Officer of the Open Space Institute, from whence came DEC Commissioner Joe Martens, the Catskill Mountainkeeper and other members of the NRDC Board, you begin to get the picture. Maya refuses to take new corporate money but she’ll take old corporate money in a heartbeat from the likes of the Heinz and Rockefeller families in their full-scale campaign to stop natural gas development in New York State and keep Catskill land available on the cheap for the latter’s enjoyment. That’s also why John Adams, NRDC founder and father of Catskill Mountainkeeper Ramsay Adams, and Abby Rockefeller previously served on the Riverkeeper board.
Also interesting is the fact the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation has significant investments in Baker Hughes, Encana, EOG, Exxon, Schlumberger and Williams, according to its 990 return. So, Maya was taking money from the natural gas industry, whether she wants to admit it or not. Isn’t it fascinating how she’s not tainted by it, but everyone else is?
There’s one other fascinating aspect to the Riverkeeper’s latest protests of the Tennessee Gas Pipeline; but for its and others’ earlier opposition to a common sense routing of the upgraded pipeline, there would be no significant tree cutting in the area of the new routing. It joined with other organizations in 2010 to file comments authored by the Columbia University Environmental Law Clinic with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission protesting the widening of an existing route of the pipeline through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (DWGNRA); an action, among others, that later led to the pipeline being rerouted around the DWGNRA, necessitating new land disturbance. The Riverkeeper, in other words, has been hoisted on its own petard.
None of this will surprise our readers. There is nothing sincere about the Riverkeeper’s mission or that of its allies, who consist of all the usual suspects. The concern for trees is just firewood for the burning cause of opposing natural gas development, bought and paid for the oldest and biggest money around. If the river and the trees really could talk to us, they’d speak up for burning natural gas, not wood; not that kind anyway.