Wolf promises money for Glen trail if shale tax passes
Pennsylvania Senator John T. Yudichak talks to the press at the base of the Falls Trail at Glen Onoko Falls in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania as Governor Tom Wolf stands by his side Tuesday afternoon. BOB FORD/TIMES NEWS
Governor Tom Wolf talks to the press at the base of the Falls Trail at Glen Onoko Falls in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Senator John T. Yudichak, Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans and DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn, back, were also on hand to field questions regarding the trails closure earlier this month.
Gov. Tom Wolf stood at the base of Glen Onoko Falls trail on Tuesday and guaranteed that he would reopen the popular hiking spot — if lawmakers pass his proposed tax on the natural gas industry.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission closed the trail May 1, citing trail conditions and numerous rescues over the years, despite a petition signed by 20,000 hikers asking to keep it open.
Wolf told media on Tuesday the trail should be open, and his Restore Pennsylvania initiative is the best way to make that happen.
“That river, this trail brings lots of people to this area. And not just from the northeast but from all over the United States. This is a real gem, and we need to invest in it,” Wolf said.
On Tuesday Wolf visited the base of the Glen Onoko Falls trail with State Sen. John Yudichak (D-Luzerne/Carbon) in order to promote his $4.5 billion Restore Pennsylvania initiative. The plan calls for a tax on Marcellus Shale drillers to tackle blight, deteriorating roads, and broadband Internet in rural areas.
Wolf was joined by the heads of the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Department of Conservation of Natural Resources.
Wolf said if the plan passes, he guarantees that the falls will be reopened. He said it would involve transferring it to DCNR, an initial investment of $4 million and $500,000 each year to staff the falls. The cost to fix the trail is estimated at $1.7 million, but Wolf said access to the trail needs to be improved for first responders.
“We want to make sure we have access for emergency responders and things like that. If we get restore passed, the secretary, the senator and I will make sure that happens,” Wolf said.
Right now, neither the game commission or DCNR have plans to reopen the trail.
Cindy Adams Dunn, secretary of the Department of Conservation of Natural Resources, said her department currently has a $1 billion backlog of projects in state parks around the state. That includes roads, bridges, water systems and sewage treatment facilities at parks which are already part of the state park system.
She said she’s not interested in taking on a new trail which requires millions in improvements.
“It’s a very valuable trail, but we have projects that have been in the queue for 20 years,” Dunn said. “We have sewage treatment plants that need to be replaced, we have bridges that have been washed out by flash flooding, roads that are closed, we have a lot of buildings that are simply failing.”
Brian Burhans, executive director of the game commission, said it can’t spare any funds to fix the trail because it is focused on dealing with threats to wildlife like chronic wasting disease in deer, West Nile virus in Ruffed Grouse, and white nose syndrome in bats.
“Nature may be free, but putting people on the landscape costs money because we have to manage that recreational use,” he said.
Burhans said there have been 15 fatalities on the trail over the years. He said the trail has to be safer, and have less impact on the environment.
“It’s not that we wanted to close down the trail, this was the responsible thing to do,” Burhans said.
Wolf has fought unsuccessfully for a severance tax on the Marcellus Shale industry since he took office in 2015.
Wolf says Pennsylvania is the second largest producer of natural gas in the state, the only major natural gas-producing state which does not have a tax. He said Texas brags about the billions it takes in each year with its severance tax. His proposed tax is more modest — it would take in about $300 million on top of the $180 million which the industry already pays for an impact fee. Wolf said an independent analysis shows that 80 percent of the tax would be paid from outside the state.
“This is something that would make life better for Pennsylvanians. And this is something that we can afford, because this will be paid for by non-Pennsylvanians,” Wolf said.
Wolf’s staff said the bill only needs the support of seven more represenatives in order to pass the house. It currently has 25 co-sponsors in the Senate, meaning it would pass with a tiebreak vote from the Lieutenant Governor.
Yudichak said this proposal has more potential to pass both chambers of the state legislature because it addresses the real need for infrastructure improvements in the state. It also isn’t taking place during the normal state budgeting process.
“There is consensus around the idea that every county, all 67, all 2800 municipalities, have critical public infrastructure needs that cannot be deferred any longer,” Yudichak said.