Authors Note: Public hearings on House Bill 1576 and Senate Bill 1047 will be held on August 26 and August 27. On August 26, the public hearing will take place at 2PM at the Empire Beauty Salon in Pottsville PA (396 Saint Clair Highway) and on August 27, a Pennsylvania Game Commission presentation will be held at 9AM at the Ramada Inn in Pottsville PA (101 South Progress Avenue). The second meeting will be on the department’s Gas and Oil Lease Program.
In Western Pennsylvania, possible pay-to-play politics threatens how the Commonwealth designates 62 Pennsylvania specific threatened and endangered species, what species can get on the state’s endangered species list, and the process of how potentially endangered species get on the list thanks to a bill introduced by Rep. Jeffrey Pyle and 66 other representatives, which is making its way through the Pennsylvania legislature. The bill also includes a section specifying fines imposed on whistleblowers for releasing information from a state government agency.
On June 12, State Representative Jeffrey Pyle circulated a co-sponsorship memorandum for House Bill 1576 ; the subject of the memo was “Endangered Species Coordination Act.” In the memo, Representative Pyle explains that the legislation has “four main elements.” These elements are:
- Standardize the process for listing of threatened or endangered species by formalizing the existing resource agency authority via rule-making
- Consolidates the listing into a centralized database managed by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
- Grants access to information in the database to planners required to consider the impacts that a project could have or to those involved in conservationist efforts
- Protects sensitive data by prohibiting the disclosure of the information to anyone not involved in a development of conservationist project.
The culprit for this salacious attack on Pennsylvania’s endangered species revolves around Myotis lucifugus – or the little brown bat.
Representative Pyle’s Disdain of the Little Brown Bat
The story of the little brown bat at the center of controversy dates back to November 2012 when Amerikohl Mining filed a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The Ellwood City Ledger points out that Amerikohl Mining paid over $317,000 to the Indiana bat conservation fund for two of their mines in 2010 and 2011. In 2010, the company paid $127,000 for their Alexander Mind in New Sewickley and then in 2011 paid $189,000 for their Kozora mine. Conveniently, with the change in administrations from when the original payments occurred, the State Game Commission determined that these payments were “not appropriate or legally enforceable,” but both agencies have not returned the money to Amerikohl.
How does Representative Pyle factor into Amerikohl Mining’s fight over the little brown bat and his legislation that would repeal Pennsylvania’s endangered species act? According to VoteSmart.org, Representative Pyle’s largest campaign contributors have come from the Energy and Natural Resources sector; to the tune of $31,000. Digging deeper into his individual campaign contributions, you’ll see that Representative Pyle has received $2,500 from John Stilley who is owner and operator of Amerikohl Mining.
When asking Mr. Pyle if his campaign contributors were responsible for this legislation, he offered a different narrative in response. He stated that his motivation for the legislation stems from when the Armstrong School District was renovating Kittanning High School, which occurred during the same exact time as the Amerikohl lawsuit. In an email exchange, he stated “it has very little to do with an individual, but more with the ruling [the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service] just laid out on the Armstrong School District for $68,000 … my school district might have been able to spend the money on the kids, not hunting imaginary bats.” Pyle went as far as describing the donation to the Indiana Bat Fund – the same program that Amerikohl is suing over – as a “shakedown” from the Pennsylvania Gaming Commission and that his “taxpayers really appreciated that one and I was only one of many who objected.”
However, according to the Kittanning Paper, the school district approved the donation with little objection; by a 5-1 vote:
L.R. Kimball Architect Project Manager Brian Hayes told school board directors last week the property was inhabited by the bat, and either they could pay nearly $62,000 into a conservation fund, leave 50 acres of the property untouched or abandon the project …
… Before the vote, Board Director Linda Walker sought clarification.
“This money would have to be paid no matter when the trees were moved, right – Whether we do it now or 8-10 months down the road?,” Walker asked.
Solicitor Lee Price affirmed such …
… “I thought I understood (architects) say there were other options – they really never discussed those details, it was just an automatic $61,000,” Smeltzer said.
The money will be paid into the Bat Habitat Conservation Fund.”
The total cost of the school renovation project was over $60 million and the school district had to contribute $61,800, which was 1/10 of 1 percent of the budgeted project, to the Indiana Bat Fund.
In his email response, the Representative pushed the narrative of “the school children vs. imaginary creatures” – like a unicorn or Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. However, when describing the bill to a Lancaster newspaper, Pyle suggested different motives for the legislation. In a May 5th article titled “Pondering the Power of the Label ‘Endangered,’” Representative Pyle went on the “jobs offensive.” He said: “I’m not willing to sacrifice literally tens of thousands of jobs to save their little bats,” and continued with “For as good as they (Pennsylvania Game Commission) are for achieving their mission, they run into problems when it overlaps other priorities, like jobs, coal, gas and lumber.”
What Mr. Pyle fails to recognize are the economic benefits of a healthy bat population. First, the proposed legislation, which is discussed in further detail below, will harm the Commonwealth economically. In a letter from the United States Department of the Interior addressed to the executive director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, John F. Organ, PhD states that Pennsylvania “received $19,158,429 in Wildlife Restoration funds in Fiscal Year 2013” and “this Bill imposes impediments to the Game Commission’s ability to codify regulations that may be necessary to maintain eligibility to participate in the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Programs. It also directs where funding will go, removing control from the agency over expenditure funds (source document provided at the end of article).” On a national level, the United States Geological Survey estimates that White Nose Syndrome and the depletion of the little brown bats in the United States cost the country more than $3.7 billion a year in agricultural loses because bats feed on insects, which saves farmers money on pesticide use. But Representative Pyle’s disdain of the cute little flying critters doesn’t end there.
In Pennsylvania, the little brown bat’s population has decreased significantly since 2006 – 2007 when White Nose Syndrome was first discovered in New York State. The fungal disease is poorly understood; but, the Pennsylvania Game Commission estimated that 99.5 percent of monitored colonies across the Commonwealth have been wiped out. To raise awareness of this plight in the little brown bat community, freshman Representative Steve McCarter (D – 154th) introduced House Resolution 199 on April 3, 2013. The resolution would have dedicated the week of April 13, 2013 as “Bat Protection Awareness Week.” According to Representative McCarter, resolutions like House Resolution 199 usually pass the House floor by unanimous consent. That is, at least until Representative Pyle found out about Bat Protection Awareness Week. In a meeting with Representative McCarter, he explained that his House Resolution was procedurally killed before its vote when it was abruptly diverted to the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee before allowing House members to vote on it. According to VoteSmart.org, the 15 republicans in the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee have received over $128,000 in donations from the energy industries, and some of the largest recipients include: Tim Krieger ($10,150), Donna Oberlander ($11,000), Eli Evankovich ($15,000), Jim Christiana ($21,250) and Jeff Pyle (31,660). These six representatives received close to $90,000 from the fossil fuel extraction industry. Protecting the little brown bat means that some industries, like the fossil fuel industries in the Commonwealth, would have some hindrance, but they don’t have to worry with those 6 representatives in their back pockets.
House Bill 1576 – the Endangered Species “Coordination” Act
In Representative Pyle’s legislation (Senate companion legislation was introduced by Senate Pro Tempore Scarnati), there are a couple of things to be concerned about: First, the way the bill changes the way endangered species will be designated. And, second, the inclusion of a whistleblower clause that fines those who publicly disseminate information from a state government resource.
The first major point of contention of this bill is found in section 4, subsection b (see the full text of House Bill 1576 here. Section 4 begins on page 4,). This is the “standardization process” that Representative Pyle explained in his co-sponsorship memo. Section 4 takes the endangered species designation process away from the “Commonwealth agency” — the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry — and hands it over to an Independent Regulatory Review Commission, a committee whose commissioners are nominated by the Governor’s office and approved by the Senate, and the House Committee on Environmental Resources and Energy. Representative Pyle is a member of that committee, serving as the Chair of the Subcommittee on Mining. Essentially, HB 1576 politicizes the process by shifting decision-making process from biologists, ecologists and other scientists to state legislators — specifically, it empowers a committee that includes Representative Jeffrey Pyle and other fossil fuel friendly representatives to make decisions regarding the designation of an endangered species.
Section 4, subsection d states that all endangered or threatened species “shall be removed from the centralized database after a period of two years unless the Commonwealth agency designates the species as a threatened or endangered in accordance with the provisions of this act.” The actions here are self explanatory, and if you’re a little brown bat or another endangered species that may hinder the bottom line of a corporation, well it’s a bad day for you. Little brown bats and other endangered species don’t have the lobbying power of the building associations or the fossil fuels industries.
The most controversial section of the bill appears on the last page. The end of Section 8 would allow the state government to levy a $250 – $5,000 fine on an individual or group who disseminates information obtained from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The language in the civil penalties section was weedy and confusing to follow, so I asked Representative Pyle to help me understand this section:
Would you mind to explain the civil penalties section? If a scientist, environmental group or advocacy group were to blow the whistle on habitat destruction of an endangered or threatened species, are they subjected to a $250 – $5,000 fine?
The Representative replied that “no, it wouldn’t.” I reread the bill summary for HB 1576 (included in the source packed embedded below):
Detailed information about the location of species, habitat, buffer areas and avoidance procedures listed within the created DCNR centralized database must be provided upon request. Those who request and receive this detailed information are prohibited from disclosing it to other persons without prior written authorization from DCNR. The use of this information is solely for conservation, planning, resource management and compliance.
Violations of the provisions related to unauthorized dissemination of information or illegal use of the data is a civil penalty of not less than $250 or more than $5,000.
Section 8 of the bill acts as a gag order for the general public. I then asked Representative Pyle another follow up question on this issue, wanting legal clarification. I presented the representative with my original question, his response and the above statement from his bill summary. I asked, “as stated in my original questioning, those people wouldn’t be fined?” Instead of answering the question, Representative Pyle avoided the question entirely, questioning the honesty of my inquiry. Representative Pyle stated:
Here’s a follow up for you…is this really a question or are you hoping to change my opinion of the lack of transparency/due process in how issuance of outdoor permits are handled?
There are two realities that have been portrayed in this story. The public relations reality that Representative Pyle is crafting to mask the real effects of his proposed legislation and the reality that everyone else lives in. The reality that Representative Pyle wants you to believe is that HB 1576 was crafted to protect school children from big government “shakedowns” that were the equivalent of 1/10 of 1 percent of a budgeted renovation project. Actual reality tells a different story. This bill flies in the face of fact-based science to protect the people and companies that have funded Representative Pyle’s campaign.
But don’t take my word for it. Representative Pyle told the Lancaster Intelligencer exactly who this bill is designed to protect:
“For as good as they (PGC) are for achieving their mission, they run into problems when it overlaps other priorities, like jobs, coal, gas and lumber.”
Coal. Gas. Lumber.