Penna. Government Violating State Constitution, Not Protecting Common Natural Resources

by admin on August 31, 2020

Familiar sign in Penna. state forests, unfortunately

Penna. government ignores ruling of Court on natural resources

Letter of Protest by Ron Evans to Olean Times Herald, August 29, 2020

When Andrew Jackson disagreed with a decision of the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, he reportedly said, “John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it.”

All three branches of Commonwealth government are saying the equivalent regarding a ruling the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made in June 2017. The court ruled in favor of the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (PEDF), which sued the governor for not executing the environmental amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The amendment states: “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”

PEDF’s lawsuit specifically contended that the governor and legislature were ignoring the amendment in the management of state parks and forests. The state Supreme Court’s decision in PEDF’s case clearly stated that the amendment means state lands and resources are owned by the citizens of the Commonwealth in the form of a public trust. In addition, the trust includes any money gained from the sale of the resources.

The court ruled that the role of government at all levels is to act as a trustee of the public trust, not as proprietors, by conserving and maintaining public lands and resources.

Since the ruling, all three branches of state government have ignored the court. The governor, legislature and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the agency charged with conserving and maintain state parks and forests, abdicated their responsibilities as trustees, especially with the rush to drill for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale region of the state.

The governor and legislature have not permanently banned additional drilling on public lands, even though DCNR has stated that any additional drilling will endanger fragile ecologies. In fact, DCNR, in its most recent plan for state forests, determined that oil and gas extraction are legitimate uses of lands owned by the citizens. This is not “conserving and maintaining” public natural resources.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in its ruling, deemed the Oil and Gas Lease Fund can be used only to maintain and conserve public natural resources. Starting with the Rendell administration, approximately $1.2 billion has been taken out of the public trust and diverted to the general fund. Gov. Wolfe and the legislature continue to ignore the court decision by diverting $61 million from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund to the general fund for the 2020-21 budget.

Consequently, PEDF filed another lawsuit specific to the diversion of Oil and Gas Lease Fund money. After a two-year wait, Commonwealth Court has ignored the decision of the state Supreme Court by ruling that some of the Oil and Gas Lease Fund can be used to fund the operation of state departments and agencies. Now all three branches of state government are complicit in ignoring the state Supreme Court decision in the PEDF case.

PEDF’s appeal of the Commonwealth Court’s decision is under review by the Supreme Court.

In 1971, the legislature passed, the governor signed and the citizens ratified a visionary amendment to the Commonwealth’s Constitution. For almost 50 years, state government largely ignored its responsibility to conserve and maintain public lands and resources. In 2017 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made an unambiguous ruling mandating that government fulfill its trustee responsibilities. However, all three branches continue to ignore the ruling.

As citizens who own the public trust, we cannot allow this undemocratic challenge to a state Supreme Court decision to persist.

>>> Ron Evans is president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation. For more information on PEDF’s legal actions, go to or

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