ZERBE TOWNSHIP - They say money doesn't grow on trees.

But for Zerbe Township, Northumberland County and the Line Mountain School District, trees mean big money.

Last year, timbering royalties brought in a gross of $51,816.86 for the three entities.

The money goes to the township, county and school through a unique receivership originally set up to ensure coal royalties were properly distributed.

"Back in 1945, there was a question as to whether or not the appropriate monies resulting from the mining of Zerbe Township were going to the correct taxing bodies," explained Roger Wiest Sr., the lawyer in charge of the legal filings for the receivership.

William Wilkinson, of Zerbe Township, has overseen the receivership for several decades. Each year on Sept. 20, he compiles the money received from royalties earned over the previous year and files a schedule of distribution of net royalties in the Northumberland County Court of Common Pleas. The files are public record.

Sharp increase

The total gross royalties for the receivership last year, with mining and timbering, came to $83,386.11. The previous five years, royalties ranged from $18,085.85 to $31,164.88.

The primary reason for the sharp increase is timbering done by property mined by Last Time Coal, operated by Vince Guarna and John Foieri.

"We used to always push the trees down with a dozer and just disregard them," said Guarna, of Mount Carmel Township. "The county had a chance to sell (the timber) where we're going to mine, and they made some money off that."

Some of the county property leased by Last Time Coal's strip mine operation is part of the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA). While there has been public criticism that the mining and timbering were not approved, Patrick Mack, AOAA authority member and Northumberland County's director of planning and industrial development, said he was aware of the timbering done by Last Time Coal and that it is fully legal and caused no problems with the AOAA.

"What we (the AOAA) lease is the surface of the property for the purpose of recreation, and (Guarna) has had the lease for a long time, longer than the AOAA," said Mack. "He worked a long time and did the studies to get the permits, and he's invested a lot of money over the years."

Stamping down trees to clear an area for strip mining is considered standard procedure in the mining industry. Mack said taking the trees for timbering rather than just crushing them was a clever way for the county to bring in money for something that would be done anyway.

Game commission OK

In a letter dated Aug. 16, 2006, from Jeffrey J. Kost, licensed professional geologist with the division of environmental planning and habitat protection at the bureau of wildlife habitat management in the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Last Time Coal's operations are determined to "not affect endangered or threatened species of bird or mammal recognized by the Pennsylvania Game Commission."

"We do not anticipate any adverse impacts to any critical or unique habitats," Kost wrote in giving initial approval.

Studies on wetlands, geology, erosion and revegetation were also completed on Last Time Coal's 242.2 leased acres.

A representative of the game commission said last week there were no additional requirements of habitat studies for timbering.

Last Time Coal's mining permits are available for public viewing at the state Department of Environment Protection (DEP) district mining office in Pottsville.

AOAA studies

As the AOAA developed, the game commission required studies, too. Rather than get cleared for all 6,500 acres, the county asked the game commission if it could submit development activities for review on a case-by-case basis, Mack said.

Activities in some areas, such as construction of the welcome center last year, required no study. But a former strip mine area that was reclaimed did. On that project, "The result was a requirement to create bat habitats," Mack said.

"The AOAA needs to obtain game commission approval for the things we want to do. Mining companies will need to obtain game commission approval for the things they will want to do," Mack said. "Same property, same locations, two completely different effects on the property and the species living there."

Checks cut

The $51,816,86 earned by the receivership for timber last year came from Fort Jackson Logging, Wiest said.

With the money brought in from timbering royalties added to coal royalties, sizeable checks were cut to the three receiving entities in 2013. The county received $23,755.15, the school district $37,513.96 and the township $12,504.65.

Expenses for the receivership, which totalled $9,612.35 last year, include paying Wilkinson and Wiest for their services, and bond premiums. The fees are approved annually by the court.