Natural Gas or Black History?

Owner of Historic Pennsylvania Farm Weighs Cost of Well

Rendering of the potential Dennis Farm in Brooklyn, Pa.

Credit: ? Michael Falstead, John Milner Associates

Denise Dennis has been working to preserve the 153-acre property in northeast Pennsylvania where her ancestors—free African Americans—settled 200 years ago, after moving there from New England. As head of the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust, Dennis hopes to restore the 19th-century farm house and create an interpretive center on the site. She has been offered money that would help achieve this, but there is a catch.   

The Dennis farm sits atop a vast reserve of natural gas near Brooklyn, Pa. It's located in the heart of the Marcellus Shale formation, a reservoir of gas that stretches from New York's Finger Lakes to Virginia. Pennsylvania has the largest concentration, with nearly two-thirds of the state covered by the formation.

Geologists believe the Marcellus holds the largest untapped reserve of natural gas in the country. Hundreds of energy companies have descended on the region, to secure leases from landowners.

Dennis has been offered more than $800,000 for the right to drill—enough money to fulfill her dreams for the property, owned by the trust that she created in 2001. But so far, she's held out, trying to learn more about the environmental impacts—namely the large amounts of water and chemicals used in drilling.

"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," says Dennis, president of the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust. "What would be the point if I save the property but poisoned the water? To me, this farm is like a child."

Drilling will have a dramatic impact on this part of Pennsylvania, says Walter Gallas, director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Northeast Field Office. The National Trust has been working with Dennis on preserving her family's 153-acre farm, and is monitoring developments in the Marcellus Shale area.

"We are really concerned about what the natural-gas extraction will do to the landscape," Gallas says. "The impact of this natural gas extraction could be really profound."

The stone-walled family cemetery on the Dennis Farm contains the graves of 50 free African Americans, including veterans of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars

Credit: John Milner Associates

Drilling could also impact federal lands. The federal government does not own the mineral rights on national parks and forest, opening the door to potential drilling, says Holly Salazer, regional air resources coordinator for the park service.

"We cannot deny access to private rights," Salazer says. "We want to work on minimizing impacts."

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is reviewing a permit to drill for gas at Fort Necessity Battlefield in southwestern Pennsylvania, Salazer said. Also, there are several pending applications on private land near the Delaware Water Gap national park, she said.

Because drilling uses chemicals, the park service wants to ensure that the ecology of the Delaware River is not damaged, she says.

In the Allegheny National Forest, 512,000 acres in northwestern Pennsylvania, one group is trying to make sure drilling doesn't spoil the landscape.

Friends of Allegheny Wilderness is trying to purchase the mineral rights in eight key areas of the forest—tracts that represent critical areas for protection, says executive director Kirk Johnson. The group has also asked Congress to protect these eight areas, totaling 54,000 acres, under the Wildlife Act of 1964, a move that would prevent drilling, he says.

While interest in Marcellus Shale drilling has not endangered the national forest yet, there's a history of oil exploration in the area, Johnson says. His group is not opposed to drilling, but recognizes that certain pristine areas must remain in their wilderness state.

"The key is to find the right balance, the right mix," Johnson says. "We don't want the whole forest to be overrun with oil and gas drilling."

And it's that right balance that concerns Dennis. Long-term environmental consequences could far outweigh any short-term monetary gain.

"Drilling could destroy what we want to preserve. We'd have to really know that these wells will not contaminate," she says.

The Dennis family was among the first to settle in what became Susquehanna County, c. 1800. According to local oral history, the Dennis farm was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Credit: Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust

The Dennis homestead, an abandoned two-story house built in 1859, is nestled in a sheltered region known as the Endless Mountains, far from any major roadway or river. Dennis believes that remoteness kept her black ancestors safe, allowing them the freedom to work the land and support their families. Now, Dennis feels compelled to make sure the land is left intact for years to come.

"The Dennis farm is a gem for Pennsylvania. This was a white community, and this black family was treated like a member of the community," she says. "This is worth preserving. This says a lot about Pennsylvania."

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Submitted by Pat at: April 20, 2010
Lets fix it up and be proud to show it for Black History!

Submitted by pennstatecntrygirl at: April 20, 2010
I am from this area...moved now for a job, but drilling is about the only thing that is going to keep the area going. To many farms are going away because of high taxes, govt interfenece, city people and more importantly low milk prices...I love history, but with the money that can be made from leasing/drilling one could preserve many a historical home.

Submitted by Chris at: April 7, 2010
Stick with the "gem". Americans are always destroying history in this country and then traveling to Europe and Asia to "soak up" someone else's history. A "free Negro" farm of that size still existing is a rarity. God Bless and I would like to visit.

Submitted by Logcabinist at: April 7, 2010
The Endless Mountains are incredible! So this is among the historical treasures, like French Azilum I visited in 2000 near Towanda, PA. Take Route 6, it's a Great American Adventure! See Natl. Geog. Traveler, Jan.-Feb. 1996.

Submitted by JJKali at: April 6, 2010
This pristine area needs to be preserved. $800,000 for gas rights is nothing. A percentage of the actual amount of gas taken from the ground makes some sense. Protect the property and historical significants.

Submitted by Pat at: April 6, 2010
Don't do it. I hear the impact on the land and environment is terrible and not worth it in the long run. They do not clean up after they are finished and it is very expensive to reclaim the land after they leave.

Submitted by Engineer George at: April 6, 2010
Seems to me there's more hot air than intelligence involved. Have not these folk heard of off-set drilling. You won't have to have a rig set up right on the farm property. We live with such every day out here in Oklahoma.

Submitted by motorboy at: April 6, 2010
Denise, do what your ancestors would have done: Drill, Baby Drill! Without money preservation is just a dream.