The head of Pennsylvania’s state parks, John Norbeck, will step down at the end of this week, the Patriot-News, Harrisburg, reported.
Under Norbeck’s leadership, the state parks increased visitation and won a gold medal national award for being the best-managed park system in the United States.
Before coming to Pennsylvania in 2006, Norbeck had spent nearly 30 years in the Maryland state parks system.
Environmentalists and advocates for the state parks fear Norbeck’s abrupt departure could be a sign that the Gov. Tom Corbett administration is preparing to open the park gates to drilling rigs to tap natural gas under the state’s popular park system; Norbeck is known to be an opponent of drilling in the state parks.
Chris Novak, spokeswoman for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), confirmed Thursday morning (Oct. 4) that Norbeck had submitted his resignation on Monday, effective Friday, and sent an e-mail to staff on Wednesday expressing appreciation for their work.
Norbeck’s letter to employees said, “During my entire career my guiding principles have always been to take care of staff and to provide top quality public service … I feel very comforted in knowing that we did just that during some pretty dark times.”
Novak declined to comment on the reasons for the resignation – and whether it was voluntary – citing personnel issues.
Sources with knowledge of the situation said Norbeck was forced out last week by DCNR Deputy Secretary Ellen Ferretti.
When Ferretti, a former regional president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, was appointed last year, the administration said her duties would include working “to develop policy on a variety of issues, including Marcellus Shale oil and gas development and drilling.”
Attempts to reach Norbeck for comment were unsuccessful.
This is only the most recent seismic tremor for a department some fear to be disengaging itself from the public.
Late last month, Paulette Viola resigned from the Citizens Advisory Council claiming changes under the Corbett administration made it impossible for the council to “effectively and efficiently meet the spirit of the law or its responsibility to the public.”
Viola had been with the council since the Ridge administration, having served on Tom Ridge’s transition team and offered input on the separation of DCNR and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) into two separate agencies from the former DER.
Viola has alleged a death by strangulation for the advisory council.
She said the council has lost its independence as an advisory body, has lost its executive director and its secretary, has had its budget disproportionately slashed and has been slowly starved of information and greeted with a “hostile atmosphere created by the administration for public input.”
Viola told the Patriot-News she believed what’s happening to the council goes well beyond budget concerns.
“We were provided information that the secretary believed we acted outside our jurisdiction,” she said. “He suggested that we were only to comment on things in DCNR and not on resources in Pennsylvania in general.”
Viola said i the past the council has commented on the deer population and it’s effect on regeneration of the forest, believing it an appropriate concern for DCNR.
More recently, she said, the council has been investigating drilling.
She said the council has held at least two day-long field trips to drilling sites and hosted public forums on drilling on public lands.
“Of all the resource management topics, that is the one we’ve spent the most time on,” she said.
Since its creation, the primary concern of the council, Viola said, has always been effective public input on policy issues.
That mission, she said, is now in jeopardy.
Viola was unaware of Norbeck’s departure when contacted Wednesday night.
“He was a good director,” she said. “I’m sorry to see him go.”
A spokesperson for Corbett said, “Any assertion that there’s a connection between John Norbeck’s resignation and natural resource development on state land is totally without merit.”
She added, “There’s currently a moratorium in place with respect to additional leases of state forest land,” but could not comment on whether or not there were plans to lift that moratorium in the near future.
Before taking office two years ago, Corbett indicated he would lift the moratorium, but hasn’t.