This past June, I accompanied a group called Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development to Washington, D.C, to talk with a few members of Congress and to officials from the Department of the Interior about what we’ve all witnessed in what is now a years-long public lands energy extraction boom. It was a diverse bunch of people, from Arkansas bird dog trainer and US Army Special Forces veteran Tim Kizer to Luke Shafer, a 250 pound shaven-headed bruiser from Meeker, Colorado, to the soft-spoken New Mexican, Toner Mitchell, who has guided fly fishermen for 37 years and owns the Reel Life Fly Shop in Santa Fe. We were lucky enough to be joined by Devin DeMario, a young fisheries biologist from Pennsylvania, and the current Chair of the North Central Division of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs. Devin is 25 years old, and grew up fishing and hunting with her father and brother. Like a lot of native Pennsylvania outdoors folks, Devin is a big fan of the state’s native brook trout, and she has found herself, like her favorite fish, tangled up with an energy industry that seems hell-bent on testing the limits of what the landscape, and the people who call it home, will endure. I thought readers would appreciate a brief interview with someone from a new generation of conservationists, and someone on the front lines of the struggle for Pennsylvania’s proud heritage of hunting and fishing.

F&S: How did you come to a career in fisheries and sportsman’s issues?

DeMario: I started fishing with my dad when I was little. I didn’t start hunting until I was in my teens. It was mostly just growing up with a real appreciation of what was out there. And I did an internship with the Pennsylvania Game Commission trapping bears, which I really, really enjoyed, so much so that I got into teaching hunter-trapper ed, learning and teaching trapping techniques. I did a warbler study in Michigan, went out west to the Grand Canyon, then came home and worked as a fisheries biologist in northwest Pennsylvania, setting trap nets, electro fishing, doing stream and river assessments- it was just a great job, and that led me to the grad program in fisheries here at Penn State.

F&S: What can you tell us about the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs?

DeMario: We were created in 1932 by a group of hardcore sportsmen who were concerned with the growing threat of acid mine drainage, which was the major issue of the time. And we are still concerned with that. But our conservation pledge is very broad- to defend from waste our natural resources and to address anything that would have a negative effect on sportsmen. So we have a Second Amendment Chair – I’d say 95% of our members are NRA- as well as a focus on more traditional conservation issues. Our pledge is broad for a reason. We have a ton of sportsmen’s clubs in Pennsylvania, and that’s a good thing-we sell something like a million (hunting and fishing) licenses every year. But it also means that we are fragmented. There must be dozens of clubs, everything from Muskies, Inc. to the Pennsylvania Trapper’s Association. That can be good, and we have input from most of them, but sometimes people are so focused on one species they forget that real conservation is about how everything is connected.

F&S: If acid mine drainage was the major issue of 1932, what is the major issue of 2010?
DeMario**: The rush to develop the Marcellus Shale (for natural gas)- and it is a rush like nothing I’ve ever seen- is the major issue we are working on now. We’re seeing sedimentation of creeks, water contamination, and a lot of issues with produced water (water pumped out to free the natural gas) that contains salts and dissolved solids. We have contamination from spills, gas migration into people’s water supplies. Most of the drilling that is happening now is along our headwaters creeks, and that is a big concern, for our brook trout resources especially.

F&S: Are there regulations that can lessen the impact of the development?

DeMario: What’s scary right now is how inadequate our regulations are. And even when we have them, we lack the budget for enforcement. We just lowered the standards that regulated produced water. We have a fifteen day expedited process for permitting energy development, and we’ve seen cases where permits to drill are approved in three days- not even enough time for somebody to look at a map to see what might be impacted. Pennsylvania has 86,000 miles of running water, and 30 biologists, so most of our streams- something like 45,000 different waterways- have never been assessed. When we recently got a higher level of protection for coldwater resources, it was a step in the right direction, but so much of that resource has never been assessed, or identified, so the new protections don’t apply there. And now, there’s no budget for anybody to do those assessments. There’s just so much going on in Pennsylvania right now, so much that needs to be done.
F&S**: What kind of answers or solutions would you offer?

DeMario: Ultimately, I’d just like to see the wise use of our resources, above the ground, below the ground, and to do that we need to have the funding and we need to have the enforcement. It’s not just so we can go waterfowl hunting or fishing, it’s about human health and human needs, too- it’s that connectedness, again, that circle. I’d like to see that recognized, because if we don’t, we really will lose the things we care about. Our kids and grandkids will never know what it is like to hold one of these brook trout in their hands. We’ll have taken that heritage from them because we couldn’t take the time and energy to do it right when we had the chance.