Two state agencies have come to the defense of Northumberland County's off-highway vehicle park plan despite a scolding from one of those same agencies and persistent concerns from local critic Dave Kaleta.

With plans for the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA) coming to fruition over a few years as millions of dollars in funding is sought, there is confusion about whether the county is already promoting the park and whether it's in a position, legally and environmentally, to do so.

Those concerns prompted Kaleta to write a letter to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) on March 16, 10 days before he disbanded his Habitat for Wildlife (HFW) organization, a move stemming in part from his battle with the county over AOAA. Most of the 16 points in Kaleta's letter support his contention that, as he wrote, it is "an obvious case of getting the cart before the horse."

But DCNR and the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) have both recently weighed in on the subject, and find no problem with the county's approach.

'No harm, no foul'

Jerry Feaser, press secretary for the game commission, said despite a letter from one of his agency's bureaus warning the county about getting ahead of required habitat studies, "there's been no harm, no foul."

"When someone takes on a project of this size, they might not fully comprehend what needs to be done and the ramifications if not done in the right order," he said in an interview last week. "It's not unusual that someone puts the cart before the horse.

"We are pleased with the partnership and cooperation and communication that is under way," he added.

Lauren S. Imgrund, director of DCNR's Bureau of Recreation and Conservation, who responded to Kaleta's letter in early April, acknowledged the "many challenges' presented in the 6,500 acres of mountainous lands - spread across

Coal, Mount Carmel, East and West Cameron and Zerbe townships - that will make up the park, including the presence of endangered species and coal-mining hazards. But she said they can be addressed "by developing these properties into a legitimate and safe facility for people to enjoy both motorized and non-motorized recreation activities."

She referenced DCNR's cooperation with the Rock Run Recreation Area in Cambria County, which had similar characteristics.

"Today, Rock Run is a successful and self-sustaining operation that provides a safe and legal place to ride ATVs and dirt bikes," she said. "Based partly on the success of Rock Run, we feel that the AOAA is a viable and positive project."

'Bunch of BS'

Kaleta was frank in his evaluation of DCNR's reply.

"It's a bunch of BS. They only half answered one question I had, and the rest went unanswered," he said.

One of his key points was that the county "is actively promoting and advertising through print and electronic media (nationwide) for off-road and ATV riders to come here and ride," yet the park is not formally operating, there are no security or safety personnel, borders are not property identified and erosion control measures have not been put in place, among other concerns.

Pat Mack, planning director for Northumberland County, provided further clarification beyond DCNR's reply.

He said when there is an official event, such when Jeep Jamboree USA conducts one of its national events, labeled "Coal Mountain," at AOAA on Aug. 3 and 4, the county informs organizers to make sure they have extra security and safety protocols in place.

"We're not open, and we're not telling people to come and ride," Mack said. "When we have tours, we are organized. There's a guide, a waiver and no one has permission to camp."

Kaleta also accuses the county of having no liability insurance, but Mack said that's not true.

"We have a general liability policy on the property. Again, we're not giving permission to people to go out there and do what they want," he said.

The state is paying attention to the project and would inform the county if anything was being done improperly, Mack said.

"We've discussed these issues and other issues. We've been meeting regularly with the game commission. We've talked to and e-mailed DCNR regularly. It's a long process," he said.

The response to Kaleta from DCNR makes it clear that the county is doing the best it can, Mack believes.

Mack noted how Kaleta took WNEP-TV onto the property without the county's approval or signing any liability wavers.

"A lot of effort has been put into putting out these small fires," he said, referencing Kaleta's letter and rumors the county is allowing the illegal activity to take place on the property.

Still, Mack said he would still rather work with Kaleta and others who have concerns than against them, noting there are opportunities for hunting and other non-motorized activities on the property.

'Risk' to species

While the game commission is supportive of the AOAA project, it did issue a strongly worded letter regarding a violation of the Pennsylvania Native Diversity Index (PNDI). It was sent to Mack in January from Olivia Mowery, environmental planner in the Division of Environmental Planning and Habitat Protection in the game commission's Bureau of Wildlife Habitat Management.

The letter related to "trail development activities" on Dec. 10 and 11, taking place after the Nov. 22 PNDI response letter was issued.

The PNDI response letter cited potential impacts exist to the "state-listed threatened" eastern small-footed bat and Allegheny woodrat and a "species of concern mammal," the northern long-eared bat. The county was aware of these concerns but proceeded without conducting the requested surveys or providing information regarding the activities to the PGC for review prior to the events occurring, Mowery wrote.

"Please be aware that the continued development of the AOAA property without PGC coordination and the completion of the applicable surveys significantly increases the risk of adverse impacts to threatened and endangered species. Furthermore, projects that result in the confirmed take of such species have the potential to carry felony charges under Title 34, Game and Wildlife Code," Mowery said.

To avoid such actions, the game commissioned recommended the county submit information pertaining to planned development projects for review and complete the requested surveys for the bats and woodrat.

Feaser said to call that a "warning letter" is "a little strong. It's elevating it to a level it isn't," he said.

"It was an error of misunderstanding, not an error of intent," he added.

There have been no additional warning letters written or violations, Feaser said.

"Now we're all firing on the same cylinders," he said.

Opening not yet 'in cards'

DCNR is also working with the county on addressing the requirements set forth by the game commission concerning threatening and endangered species.

"Once the required studies are complete, the game commission will be able to more accurately determine the potential impacts to the identified species," Imgrund wrote. "Their determination will direct how the AOAA is designed and constructed."

Kaleta's repeated contention that even the county's ownership of the property is in question, despite a review of the law by county solicitor and others who say otherwise, was rebuffed by Imgrund as well.

"The county has provided legal opinions to DCNR that state the county has the legal right to this property and to develop it into a facility such as the AOAA," she wrote.

Furthermore, the county has completed title searches for the parcels being proposed for development. Also, property surveys, which are included in the construction budget, will be required when necessary, she said.

While the project is moving forward and the county received $1.5 million in grants for development of the park in 2011, Mack said opening in 2012 "isn't in the cards."