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RIDGWAY â€“ Matt Marusiak of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy gave a special presentation on source water protection and conservation easements at Monday's meeting of the Elk County Gas Task Force.
Marusiak, a land protection specialist for the conservancy, has an office in Ridgway and a territory that covers the entire 12-county region of the PA Wilds. He has a degree in petrochemical engineering and has worked on the North Central Pennsylvania Regional Planning and Development Commission and for the planning department of Elk County.
"I'm very familiar with the area, so I'm not some guy from Pittsburgh telling you how to do things," Marusiak said.
He explained that the Western Pa. Conservancy was founded in 1932 with the purpose of carrying out land stewardship and conservation, watershed conservation, watershed science and natural heritage inventory. The conservancy has protected over 200,000 acres through free acquisition or conservation easements and also works with state and federal agencies for them to acquire land for easement purposes.
Marusiak said conservation easements can protect public drinking water sources and other natural resources while providing tax benefits to the landowner. A conservation easement is a permanent legal agreement between a property owner and a public agency or nonprofit conservation organization that restricts use of the land by current and any future owners. The land remains owned by the individual, but residential, industrial, and commercial development and subdivision or activities that could negatively affect land or water sources are prohibited. The agreement stays in place even when the property passes on or is sold to a different owner, and the overseeing agency or trust has the responsibility of enforcing the plan.
Marusiak said more municipalities and other entities have been looking at strengthening their source water protection plans in anticipation of the developing Marcellus Shale industry in Pennsylvania and that conservation easements are one way to protect an area's watershed and public water supply. He explained that an easement is flexible and can be modified according to a landowner's needs, and that landowners may continue what are considered "normal" activities such as farming, timbering and even subsurface drilling. If a drilling pad is already on a property, the area can be cut out while developing a conservation easement.
Marusiak emphasized that the Western Pa. Conservancy is not an advocacy group either for or against the development of oil and gas, although any land the conservancy owns outright will not be allowed for use in oil and gas development activities.
"We believe oil and gas should be done responsibly, but at the end of the day, we believe a landowner should do what he wants to with his property," Marusiak said.
He said there can be different protection areas on a conservation of the property, ranging from a more minimal protection area around a residence to more protected areas around streams and wetlands.
"We work with the landowner to craft that map and craft those restrictions, and then we execute the conservation easement, where that easement would be part of the deed, it would go with that land forever, so once those restrictions go in, those restrictions go forever," Marusiak said. "Our responsibility would be to forever enforce those restrictions. So it's quite a commitment."
Still, he said, the easement can be beneficial to both a landowner and to the general public.
"It's a nice balance between the needs of the private landowner and you can do it in a way particularly, when it comes to source water protection, in a way that protects the surface and protects your drinking water."