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