Monday, August 15, 2011

The Fly Fisherman's Paradox - Shale Version

Every honest angler (that's almost an oxymoron) for trout in North America deals with paradox. We cherish our cold water streams, yet recognize that many of those streams (ranging from the Green and Madison out West, to the Delaware and Youghiogheny in the East) are cold because of man, not nature.

We love our brown trout, but know that man brought them here from Germany. And we enjoy the leaping rainbow, even though it is mostly a synthetic fish and the steelhead I pursue are transplants from my native West Coast.

Perhaps there is nothing we anglers look forward to more than the road trip (or plane trip) to our favorite stream or a bucket-list stream. Yet, we know the very act of hitting the road damages the environment on which the fragile fish we pursue depend.

Earlier this month, while driving to and from a Pennsylvania river, I came face-to-face with another paradox. Gas wells. Horizontal gas wells that depend on hydraulic fracturing technology -- better known as "fracking."

Drilling these deep wells to tap into the Marcellus and Utica shale requires thousands of gallons of water laced with toxic chemicals to break up the shale and release the gas. Drilling companies haven't always handled that water well; damaging invaluable waterways. And as a new paper by the Stark Development Board kindly points out: "The environmental track record of the industry historically has been very good, but given the consequences of even a single failure, 'very good' is not good enough to operate in a self-regulating oversight model."

So clearly, if we are to protect and preserve the water in Pennsylvania and Ohio then meaningful and substantial regulations need to be in place. Yet, we know that even with those regulations in place an accident will likely happen with severe consequences.

On the other side of this paradox, oil and gas underneath our feet means jobs, economic wealth and perhaps less reasons to send our young men and women overseas to build nations where none have ever existed. As someone whose job it is to help strengthen our region's economy and whose daughter's soldier is patrolling a desolate stretch of Afghanistan, this is a powerful paradox.

When in search for wisdom and guidance, if not answers, I turn to Aldo Leopold.

Aldo wrestled with his share of paradoxes.

"A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke [of the axe] he is writing his signature on the face of the land."

And he conceded the limits the land ethic he so passionately and effectively espoused.

"We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive."

Is it too much to hope that gas companies will strive to achieve harmony? Probably.

Aldo warned us that:"We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect." The optimist tells me that Trout Unlimited and other groups with legitimate concerns about the "very good" track record of our gas companies can somehow persuade the drillers to be part of the community. But then I'm good at kidding myself.

Ultimately, I know that Aldo is right when he says: "Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

So I'm stuck in the paradox, challenged at both ends. By Aldo's standards, most of what I love about my fly fishing life just isn't right as much of the water and most of the trout -- while beautiful -- are the result of an altered biotic community. And certainly, the inevitable accident that will come from drilling will damage the biotic community somewhere.

It's enough to make one want to go fishing to sort through it all. And at times like these, I am reminded of the wisdom of the good judge, who said: "(I fish) not because I regard fishing as being so terribly important, but because I suspect that so many of the other concerns of men are equally unimportant and not nearly so much fun."

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