Pennsylvania's countryside was a smoldering moonscape 90 years ago, the hardwoods decimated for fuel and the hemlocks cut down for tannic acid to process leather.
From those ruins, Harrisburg assembled the Pennsylvania State Forests, now one of the nation's largest sustainable systems certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, the gold standard for enlightened forestry practices.
But some officials in the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) fear the hard-fought "green" certification could be threatened by the rush to cash in on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.
John Quigley, acting DCNR secretary, has questioned how much gas leasing can be tolerated on public lands after the latest auction put 32,000 more acres of forest into the industry's hands.
"Over time, as all this activity proceeds, we could very well jeopardize that certification," Quigley told The Inquirer. "That may not happen immediately, but it's something very important to us."
The debate no doubt will be replayed in the spring as legislators consider Gov. Rendell's $29 billion budget request, which counts on raising $180 million more from gas leasing in 2010-11.
Next year, Rendell's successor will likely face pressure to lease more acreage. Already, nearly half the 1.5 million acres of state forest that lie in the Marcellus "fairway" are leased to gas operators.
"A rush to drill threatens the certification of our state forests as sustainably managed," Quigley's predecessor, Michael DiBerardinis, e-mailed Rendell in March in a campaign that succeeded in slowing down legislators who wanted far more acreage leased.
The gas industry's defenders say the DCNR is capable of accommodating Marcellus exploration while sustainably managing the woodlands.
"Frankly, we don't think it's a major issue," said Patrick Henderson, a spokesman for State Sen. Mary Jo White (R., Venango), the powerful chairwoman of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.
Drilling opponents overstate the number of trees that would be lost to gas exploration, Henderson said. The most recent leases limit operators to 123 drilling locations totaling no more than 645 acres - about 2 percent of the 32,000 acres leased. The most sensitive timberlands are completely off-limits.
"It's not like they're clear-cutting 32,000 acres," he said.
The value of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification apparently is not universally appreciated.
"What does it mean beyond hanging a certificate on the wall that says you've done a good job?" Henderson asked.
Conservation and timber interests say certification is critical to the state's embattled forest-products industry, one of the nation's largest suppliers of hardwoods. The sector employs 70,000 people, down about 20,000 jobs since the housing market collapsed.
"The certification gives you market access," said Paul Lyskava, executive director of the Pennsylvania Forest Products Association. "Certain end-users require FSC certification as part of their specs. If you have access to that timber, you have access to those markets."
Though the DCNR's 2.1 million acres account for only 12 percent of the state's woodlands - most forests are privately owned - they account for 88 percent of Pennsylvania forests certified by FSC.
That makes Pennsylvania a key timber supplier to a growing market for lumber and paper that carries a "green" imprimatur. Last year, state forests generated nearly $20 million from timber sales - about half the amount generated five years ago, when the market was robust.
"We want to let people know we're concerned about the environment, that we're not just in it to rape the land," said Marc Lewis, co-owner of the Dwight Lewis Lumber Co. Inc. in Sullivan County, which produces hardwoods used in cabinetry. His company bought timber worth $720,000 last year from the state forests.
"We're in it for the long haul," said Lewis, a third-generation lumberman whose company's 15,000 acres are also FSC-certified.
Though the Forest Stewardship Council is one of several "eco-label" agencies that certify forestry practices, its association with the Rainforest Alliance and other environmental groups gives a little more credibility to the industries that meet its approval. It brings a degree of peace from activists, who have disrupted logging in other states.
"Managing timber on public lands can be very controversial, and on the West Coast, they have wars over this," said James R. Grace, deputy secretary of the DCNR, who was the state forester when Pennsylvania received its certification in 1998.
"It keeps environmental groups satisfied that we're moving in the right direction," said Lewis Fix, vice president of brand management and sustainable-product development for Domtar Corp., a Canadian firm that advertises itself as "the sustainable paper company."
Domtar, North America's largest producer of "uncoated free sheet" paper, a segment that includes copy paper, says more than a quarter of its pulp is FSC-certified, double the amount from three years ago.
Most of its 11 mills are FSC-certified, including the Johnsonburg, Pa., plant Domtar acquired from Weyerhaeuser Co. in 2007.
"The sustainability piece has enormous resonance," John D. Williams, Domtar's chief executive officer, told analysts this month.
In the most recent examination of state forests, FSC auditors said they were monitoring Marcellus gas-drilling activity for any adverse effect on the most sensitive stands of timber. Though 1,000 Marcellus wells are expected to be drilled in the forests in the next decade, only six have been completed thus far. More than 30 well pads have been cleared.
State forestry officials say the deep horizontal-drilling technique used to reach the Marcellus Shale may be less disruptive to the surface than the shallow vertical-well drilling of the past.
A dozen or more shallow wells might be spaced evenly over a square mile - each well requiring an access road and a pipeline. But Marcellus operators can access the same area through multiple wells drilled from a single location.
In Sproul State Forest near Lock Haven, foresters decided to position the drilling sites next to existing roadways to minimize fragmentation. Though the practice is more environmentally sensitive, the wells are visible to the public.
State Forester Daniel A. Devlin said the continuation of the DCNR's certification depended on how the state managed the drilling. In the forthcoming budget, Rendell has included 12 more foresters to monitor the activity - a 20 percent increase of staff currently devoted to it.
One thing is certain, said the DCNR's Grace: "Gas drilling is clearly a major change in land management in rural Pennsylvania. Not just for the forests, for everything."
Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or email@example.com.
Inquirer staff writer Joseph Tanfani contributed to this article.