Millions could be owed to struggling Game Commission in dispute with mining company

By Tom Venesky - [email protected] | July 27th, 2017 11:00 am - updated: 11:08 am.

ABOUT THE PGC

The Pennsylvania Game Commission is a 659-member independent agency in charge of managing the state’s 480 species of wild birds and mammals. The agency, established in 1895, also sets hunting seasons, bag limits and antlerless license allocations. An eight-member board of commissioners sets policy for the agency. Commissioners serve four-year terms and are nominated by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.

KEY PLAYERS

IN THE DISPUTE

The Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) could be owed millions in revenue from surface-coal leases with the Fisher Mining Company in Lycoming County. While both sides are in dispute over what actually is owed, there are indications the Game Commission received questionable political pressure to approve a new lease with Fisher Mining in January. The key personnel in the PGC/Fisher dispute:

John Blaschak: President of the Fisher Mining Company in Montoursville. His company has mined several sections of State Game Land 75 in Lycoming County. His request for a lease in January was tabled due to the dispute over potential money owed from prior leases. Blaschak also is on the Wildlife For Everyone Foundation board, a nonprofit that provides funding for conservation-related projects. The organization is chaired by former Game Commission board member Russ Schleiden.

• Dave Putnam: Self-employed biologist and Pennsylvania Game Commission board member representing District 3, which includes Lycoming County. He moved to table the latest lease agreement with Fisher Mining at the January meeting due to “outstanding issues.” Putnam also is a member of the Wildlife for Everyone Foundation board. He said Fisher Mining has used political pressure with the Game Commission in the past while seeking lease agreements for coal. His term on the commission board expired May 5, but he can serve for another six months from then until the seat is filled.

Russ Schleiden: Chairman of the Wildlife For Everyone Foundation board, which includes Blaschak and Putnam. Served on the Game Commission board (District 3) from 2000 to 2009 and is CEO of Penn’s Cave and Wildlife Park in Centre County. Has applied with the Governor’s Advisory Council for Hunting, Fishing and Conservation to fill Putnam’s seat on the Game Commission board.

Robb Miller: Director of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Hunting, Fishing and Conservation, which is in charge of interviewing applicants for vacant seats on the Game Commission board and making recommendations to Gov. Tom Wolf for nomination. He said Schleiden is one of eight candidates for the District 3 seat.

Brad Bechtel: Pennsylvania Game Commission chief counsel. He is negotiating with Fisher Mining to release documents to clarify how much money is owed to the agency from past mining leases.

Brian Hoover: President of the Pennsylvania Game Commission board. He said issues with coal leases aren’t common and any future lease with Fisher Mining will be tabled until the current dispute is resolved.

Garth Everett: A Republican state representative in Lycoming County and a member of the House Environmental Resources and Energy committee, and the Game and Fisheries committee. Everett knows Blaschak and said he’s confident the disagreement with the Game Commission will be resolved.

— Tom Venesky

PGC COST CUTS

Hunting-license sales are a significant revenue source for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The cost of the licenses can be set only by the state Legislature, but the commission has not received a fee increase since 1999. As a result, the agency projects its budget deficit will increase to $35 million by fiscal 2019-20. To combat the deficit, the agency has cut 124 jobs since 2014.

Here’s a look at steps the PGC has taken to reduce costs between 2014 and this month:

• In 2014, instituted an across-the-board operations budget reduction of 10 percent.

• In 2015, implemented across-the-board operations budget reduction of 25 percent.

• Eliminated 45 wildlife biologist aide positions.

• Eliminated 5 full-time wildlife biologist positions.

• Eliminated the position of marketing division chief.

• Eliminated a wildlife education specialist position within the Division of Research and Education.

• Eliminated a wildlife education specialist position at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.

• Established a new business model to increase customer service and reduce personnel costs in handling Game News subscriptions. This new process has allowed for the elimination of 1 full-time position.

• Through attrition, reduced the number of full-time employees from 682 in 2014 to 659 today. In addition, seasonal vacancies for 16 Habitat Management Crew positions have not been filled, and 14 full-time Wildlife Conservation Officer positions — which fall under their own union — have not been filled.

• Closed two of its four pheasant farms, resulting in the elimination of 14 jobs. The PGC also implemented a $25 pheasant hunting permit to help cover the cost of the program.

• Postponed the planned reconstruction of the Pymatuning Wildlife Learning Center and the Waterfowl Management Area administration building until revenue becomes available.

• Placed the construction of the Southcentral Regional office on hold.

• Reduced from 6 to 3 the number of Geographic Imaging System technicians serving regions. Each GIS technician now serves two Game Commission regional offices.

• Planned reduction in printing costs by printing approximately 1 million fewer Hunting & Trapping Digest booklets for the 2017-18 license year. Instead, the Game Commission will transition hunters and trappers to access this document online.

• Reduced budget for annual wildlife conservation officer in-service training by 75 percent for 2016.

• Cut wildlife conservation officer overtime by over 20 percent (ongoing).

• Canceled a new class for wildlife conservation officers for 2017. By 2018, an estimated 30 percent of wildlife conservation officer positions will be vacant.

• Stopped vehicle replacements. The most recent vehicle order was in fiscal 2015-16. No additional vehicles have been purchased. However, 120 are now being operated beyond the Department of General Services’ recommended mileage of 120,000 for turn-in.

• Canceled new training class for deputy wildlife conservation officers for 2017.

— Pennsylvania Game Commission

For a cash-strapped agency, every dollar counts.

But when it comes to millions of dollars, that sum could go a long way toward helping an agency stay in business.

That’s how much could be owed to the Pennsylvania Game Commission in past mining leases, according to board member Dave Putnam.

The Game Commission, a Harrisburg-based independent agency funded primarily by the sale of hunting licenses, hasn’t been granted a license fee increase since 1999, a reality that has led to reductions in staff and programs.

Since 2014, a total of 124 jobs have been cut, and the agency projects its deficit will grow from $12 million in 2015-16 to more than $35 million by 2019-20 if there is no license-fee increase.

Since state lawmakers are the only ones who can raise the cost of a hunting license — they’ve declined to do so on several occasions, primarily in response to constituent concerns over decreasing deer numbers — the Game Commission has become increasingly reliant on other sources of revenue. Those sources include leases with companies to extract coal, oil and natural gas from game lands in the state.

But a series of leases with one business, the Fisher Mining Company of Montoursville, has resulted in a complex web of legal details, questionable political influence, and a dispute over how much money is owed to the Game Commission.

The issue surfaced during the commission’s board meeting in January when Putnam, who represents the Northcentral Region of the state, moved to table a proposed surface coal mining agreement with Fisher.

The mining company requested the addition of a 40-acre tract to a previously approved 66-acre parcel to be mined on the 27,000-plus-acre State Game Land 75 in Pine Township, Lycoming County. The royalty value of the coal from the 40-acre tract was estimated at $503,637. The lease agreement for the 66-acre tract was approved by the PGC board in September 2013 and, at that time, had an estimated royalty value of $3.2 million.

At the January meeting, Putnam pointed out the Game Commission had four outstanding leases with Fisher Mining and several issues that needed to be resolved before the 40-acre tract could be approved. The agency receives an up-front payment when agreeing to a coal lease, followed by a final payment based on the value and amount of coal removed.

Putnam’s motion to table the proposed agreement until the September 2017 meeting was passed by the PGC board.

In a follow-up interview with the Times Leader, Putnam said the issues that led to the tabling of the motion involve the use of buildings erected by Fisher Mining for the mine operation on SGL 75, the release of bonds to allow hunters to have access to the location, and money.

Specifically, Putnam said there is a dispute over royalty payments from prior coal leases with Fisher Mining and the amount of money the company owes the Game Commission.

“It’s substantial,” Putnam said. “It’s in the millions. We need to get it resolved.”

Several attempts by the Times Leader to reach John Blaschak, president of Fisher Mining, were unsuccessful.

Resolving the dispute is a complex situation.

Game Commission board president Brian Hoover said the issue with Fisher Mining isn’t common and the agency rarely encounters any problems with the leases it enters into with oil, gas and coal companies.

Brad Bechtel, chief counsel for the Game Commission, said in question are two coal-lease agreements and two amendments with Fisher Mining dating to 2004. The agency received a little more than $7 million in up-front payments from Fisher Mining, and the operations are still active.

The problem, according to Bechtel, is the Game Commission doesn’t know how much coal has been mined, from what location, the date it was removed, and which lease it falls under. The agency’s Bureau of Wildlife Habitat Management monitors the work done on all oil, gas and mineral leases on game lands Fisher Mining and has conducted habitat improvements in the areas they have mined.

“We have a decent idea of how much coal was removed, but not from where,” Bechtel said. “We have multiple agreements with multiple sites, so what came from where? How do you attribute it?”

Bechtel also said the dates of the agreements — 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2009 — caught his attention.

“Having that many agreements right after another just seems odd,” Bechtel said. “Why one every two (sic) years?”

State Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming County, said he has conducted tours of Fisher Mining operations on SGL 75 in the past and is confident the issue can be resolved. Everett also said he heard the amount owed to the Game Commission could be several million dollars, but an exact figure has yet to be determined.

“Fisher Mining doesn’t disagree they owe the Game Commission money; it’s just about determining how much,” Everett said. “Knowing the operator and the Game Commission, they’ll get it straightened out.”

To help resolve the matter, the Game Commission has requested documents from Fisher Mining that Bechtel hopes will provide details of the coal that was mined. Not only is the location of the mined coal important, he said, but so are the dates it was removed so it can be matched up with the corresponding market price for coal at that time.

“(Blaschak) was talking about getting another agreement, but we don’t want to move forward until we clean this up,” Bechtel said.

But not everyone is content to wait.

Several sources told the Times Leader that an unidentified state legislator pushed the Game Commission to place the latest lease agreement with Fisher Mining on the January agenda for consideration by the board. Putnam said Fisher Mining has used political pressure on the Game Commission on past lease agreements, and many of the deals were made “at the higher level than the staff level.”

Campaign finance records show that Blaschak has donated to several legislators while they were seeking office.

In regard to possible legislator influence before the January board meeting, Putnam, a member of the eight-member Game Commission board, said: “I’m not 100 percent certain about that. It seems like a legislator said put it on the agenda. No one talked to me.”

Bechtel and Brian Hoover, president of the Game Commission board, said they weren’t aware of any contact by legislators to have the Fisher Mining proposal placed on the January agenda.

Everett, the state representative from Lycoming County, said he hasn’t contacted the Game Commission about the Fisher matter. State Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming County, whose district includes the area in question, could not be reached for comment.

Everett said he has contacted various executive directors of the Game Commission and the agency’s legislative liaison, Josh Zimmerman, in the past to discuss other issues on behalf of his constituents.

“I’ve done that, but not in this particular case. They (the Game Commission) haven’t asked me to get involved,” Everett said.

Bechtel said it isn’t uncommon for legislators to voice their support of a proposal to the board, which is fine with him.

Still, the possibility of pressure from legislators for the board to act on a particular item is a concern to some in state government.

Robb Miller, director of Gov. Tom Wolf’s Advisory Council on Hunting, Fishing and Conservation, is in charge of facilitating the selection process of applicants to fill vacant seats on the Game Commission board.

When asked if he was aware of any effort by a state legislator to get an item on the commission’s January agenda, Miller said he wasn’t, but it’s something that would be a concern.

“If that was the case, yes, our council would be concerned about that,” Miller said.

The advisory council has interviewed candidates to fill Putnam’s seat, whose term expired in May. Putnam can serve for an additional six months from then until a replacement is named, and the advisory council will recommend a candidate to Wolf to consider for nomination. Wolf then will forward the name to the state senate for confirmation, and the process could take several months.

Miller said he has received applications from eight candidates for Putnam’s seat. He confirmed one of those is Russ Schleiden, a commissioner from 2000 to 2009.

Schleiden is CEO of Penn’s Cave and Wildlife Park in Centre County and chairman of the board of the Wildlife for Everyone Foundation, a nonprofit that provides funding for conservation-related projects. He also is a longtime acquaintance of Blaschak, who serves on the Wildlife for Everyone board, which also includes Putnam.

When asked about a potential conflict of interest between a Game Commission board member being connected to someone who does business with the commission, such as Blaschak, Miller said such a matter would be addressed when candidates are vetted by the governor’s office.

Schleiden said he never had an issue dealing with Fisher Mining or donors to the Wildlife for Everyone Foundation during his prior term on the Game Commission board, but he wouldn’t have a problem recusing himself if a conflict of interest arose.

When asked about his relationship with Blaschak, Schleiden said: “I know John very well,” dating to his previous term with the Game Commission board.

As for the current disagreement between Fisher Mining and the Game Commission, Schleiden said he is aware of the matter.

“I knew that John was having a disagreement with the Game Commission. If I get on the board and it’s on the September agenda, I’ll look at it,” he said. “If I feel I shouldn’t be involved, I’ll walk away from it.”

“I haven’t been involved to the level a lot of people think I have.”

Schleiden also said he wasn’t aware of any political pressure by Fisher Mining to approve lease agreements, but he added that contact from legislators to the Game Commission isn’t uncommon.

“That is a constant. Even when I was on the board we had legislators ask us to cut back on (antlerless license) allocation,” Schleiden said. “People say there are no politics involved, but you have to remember everyone’s involved.”

Everett said Blaschak has been involved with so many boards that it would be difficult to exclude every candidate for the Game Commission seat who shared such a connection with the Fisher Mining president.

Everett added that the connection with Blaschak wouldn’t be a conflict of interest that would preclude Schleiden from serving on the Game Commission board.

“I think Russ would put his personal relationships aside. If Russ thought it would be a conflict, that’s when you don’t vote,” Everett said.

In the meantime, Bechtel said he did receive some documentation from Fisher Mining about the lease agreements in early July, but the issues have yet to be resolved.

Although Putnam said the money owed to the agency by Fisher Mining wouldn’t “save the day,” he wasn’t sure if the funds could’ve prevented some of the cuts from being made.

Still, until the matter with Fisher Mining is resolved, Hoover — the president of the Game Commission board — said the board will continue to table any future lease proposals from the company.

“It’s going to take time to address. … There’s a discrepancy,” Hoover said. “But the legislature refuses to give us the funding necessary to run the agency, so we have to go after every nickel and dime.”

A dump truck heads for the Fisher Mining Company site on State Game Land 75 in Pine Township, Lycoming County. (Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader)
http://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/web1_TTL072317GameLandsMining_1-5.jpgA dump truck heads for the Fisher Mining Company site on State Game Land 75 in Pine Township, Lycoming County. (Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader)
Fisher Mining Company headquarters in Montoursville. The company is in a dispute with the Pennsylvania Game Commission regarding payments owed for previous coal-mining leases on game lands. (Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader)
http://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/web1_TTL072317GameLandsMining_2-5.jpgFisher Mining Company headquarters in Montoursville. The company is in a dispute with the Pennsylvania Game Commission regarding payments owed for previous coal-mining leases on game lands. (Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader)
Mine land partially reclaimed with limestone sits in the shadow of a dragline excavator on State Game Land 75 in Lycoming County. (Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader)
http://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/web1_TTL072317GameLandsMining_4-5.jpgMine land partially reclaimed with limestone sits in the shadow of a dragline excavator on State Game Land 75 in Lycoming County. (Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader)
A dragline excavator works to remove material on a coal mine site operated by the Fisher Mining Company on State Game Land 75. (Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader)
http://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/web1_TTL072317GameLandsMining_5-5.jpgA dragline excavator works to remove material on a coal mine site operated by the Fisher Mining Company on State Game Land 75. (Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader)
A coal-mine tipple, used to load extracted coal for transport, sits beyond a reclaimed area on SGL 75. (Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader)
http://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/web1_TTL072317GameLandsMining_6-5.jpgA coal-mine tipple, used to load extracted coal for transport, sits beyond a reclaimed area on SGL 75. (Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader)
A dragline excavator works to move material beyond a previously reclaimed mine area by the Fisher Mining Company on SGL 75. (Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader)
http://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/web1_TTL072317GameLandsMining_8-5.jpgA dragline excavator works to move material beyond a previously reclaimed mine area by the Fisher Mining Company on SGL 75. (Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader)
John Blaschak
http://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/web1_Blaschak-MUG-5.jpgJohn Blaschak
David J. Putnam
http://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/web1_Putnam-5.jpgDavid J. Putnam
Russ Schleiden
http://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/web1_Schleiden-5.jpgRuss Schleiden
A coal-mine tipple processes material Thursday on Fisher Mining Company’s site on State Game Land 75 in Lycoming County. Work is ongoing despite lease-agreement issues between the company and the state Game Commission. (Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader)
http://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/web1_TTL072317GameLandsMining_7-5.jpgA coal-mine tipple processes material Thursday on Fisher Mining Company’s site on State Game Land 75 in Lycoming County. Work is ongoing despite lease-agreement issues between the company and the state Game Commission. (Bill Tarutis | For Times Leader)

By Tom Venesky

[email protected]

ABOUT THE PGC

The Pennsylvania Game Commission is a 659-member independent agency in charge of managing the state’s 480 species of wild birds and mammals. The agency, established in 1895, also sets hunting seasons, bag limits and antlerless license allocations. An eight-member board of commissioners sets policy for the agency. Commissioners serve four-year terms and are nominated by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.

KEY PLAYERS

IN THE DISPUTE

The Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) could be owed millions in revenue from surface-coal leases with the Fisher Mining Company in Lycoming County. While both sides are in dispute over what actually is owed, there are indications the Game Commission received questionable political pressure to approve a new lease with Fisher Mining in January. The key personnel in the PGC/Fisher dispute:

John Blaschak: President of the Fisher Mining Company in Montoursville. His company has mined several sections of State Game Land 75 in Lycoming County. His request for a lease in January was tabled due to the dispute over potential money owed from prior leases. Blaschak also is on the Wildlife For Everyone Foundation board, a nonprofit that provides funding for conservation-related projects. The organization is chaired by former Game Commission board member Russ Schleiden.

• Dave Putnam: Self-employed biologist and Pennsylvania Game Commission board member representing District 3, which includes Lycoming County. He moved to table the latest lease agreement with Fisher Mining at the January meeting due to “outstanding issues.” Putnam also is a member of the Wildlife for Everyone Foundation board. He said Fisher Mining has used political pressure with the Game Commission in the past while seeking lease agreements for coal. His term on the commission board expired May 5, but he can serve for another six months from then until the seat is filled.

Russ Schleiden: Chairman of the Wildlife For Everyone Foundation board, which includes Blaschak and Putnam. Served on the Game Commission board (District 3) from 2000 to 2009 and is CEO of Penn’s Cave and Wildlife Park in Centre County. Has applied with the Governor’s Advisory Council for Hunting, Fishing and Conservation to fill Putnam’s seat on the Game Commission board.

Robb Miller: Director of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Hunting, Fishing and Conservation, which is in charge of interviewing applicants for vacant seats on the Game Commission board and making recommendations to Gov. Tom Wolf for nomination. He said Schleiden is one of eight candidates for the District 3 seat.

Brad Bechtel: Pennsylvania Game Commission chief counsel. He is negotiating with Fisher Mining to release documents to clarify how much money is owed to the agency from past mining leases.

Brian Hoover: President of the Pennsylvania Game Commission board. He said issues with coal leases aren’t common and any future lease with Fisher Mining will be tabled until the current dispute is resolved.

Garth Everett: A Republican state representative in Lycoming County and a member of the House Environmental Resources and Energy committee, and the Game and Fisheries committee. Everett knows Blaschak and said he’s confident the disagreement with the Game Commission will be resolved.

— Tom Venesky

PGC COST CUTS

Hunting-license sales are a significant revenue source for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The cost of the licenses can be set only by the state Legislature, but the commission has not received a fee increase since 1999. As a result, the agency projects its budget deficit will increase to $35 million by fiscal 2019-20. To combat the deficit, the agency has cut 124 jobs since 2014.

Here’s a look at steps the PGC has taken to reduce costs between 2014 and this month:

• In 2014, instituted an across-the-board operations budget reduction of 10 percent.

• In 2015, implemented across-the-board operations budget reduction of 25 percent.

• Eliminated 45 wildlife biologist aide positions.

• Eliminated 5 full-time wildlife biologist positions.

• Eliminated the position of marketing division chief.

• Eliminated a wildlife education specialist position within the Division of Research and Education.

• Eliminated a wildlife education specialist position at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.

• Established a new business model to increase customer service and reduce personnel costs in handling Game News subscriptions. This new process has allowed for the elimination of 1 full-time position.

• Through attrition, reduced the number of full-time employees from 682 in 2014 to 659 today. In addition, seasonal vacancies for 16 Habitat Management Crew positions have not been filled, and 14 full-time Wildlife Conservation Officer positions — which fall under their own union — have not been filled.

• Closed two of its four pheasant farms, resulting in the elimination of 14 jobs. The PGC also implemented a $25 pheasant hunting permit to help cover the cost of the program.

• Postponed the planned reconstruction of the Pymatuning Wildlife Learning Center and the Waterfowl Management Area administration building until revenue becomes available.

• Placed the construction of the Southcentral Regional office on hold.

• Reduced from 6 to 3 the number of Geographic Imaging System technicians serving regions. Each GIS technician now serves two Game Commission regional offices.

• Planned reduction in printing costs by printing approximately 1 million fewer Hunting & Trapping Digest booklets for the 2017-18 license year. Instead, the Game Commission will transition hunters and trappers to access this document online.

• Reduced budget for annual wildlife conservation officer in-service training by 75 percent for 2016.

• Cut wildlife conservation officer overtime by over 20 percent (ongoing).

• Canceled a new class for wildlife conservation officers for 2017. By 2018, an estimated 30 percent of wildlife conservation officer positions will be vacant.

• Stopped vehicle replacements. The most recent vehicle order was in fiscal 2015-16. No additional vehicles have been purchased. However, 120 are now being operated beyond the Department of General Services’ recommended mileage of 120,000 for turn-in.

• Canceled new training class for deputy wildlife conservation officers for 2017.

— Pennsylvania Game Commission

Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TLTomVenesky


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