One of Pennsylvania’s most beloved and scenic hiking trails will remain closed to the public unless lawmakers pass Gov. Tom Wolf’s $4.5 billion infrastructure plan, officials said Tuesday.
The Democratic governor hiked to the base of the Glen Onoko Falls Trail to make the case for a severance tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production to finance billions of dollars in capital projects. Wolf has pushed for a tax on shale drillers every year he’s been in office, but the gas industry says it already pays its fair share and the GOP-controlled Legislature has so far rejected the idea.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission closed Glen Onoko on May 1, saying it had become too dangerous. At least 15 people have died and more than 80 have been injured on the steep, slippery trail.
The loss of the prized path has outraged hikers and nature lovers, many of whom added their names to an online petition that’s drawn more than 20,000 signatures.
But state officials who joined Wolf on the trail Tuesday said they aren’t able to re-open Glen Onoko without a heavy infusion of cash. It would cost about $4.5 million to refurbish the heavily eroded trail, install rails and other safety features and add vehicle access points for first responders. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources — which would take ownership of the trail — already has a $1 billion maintenance backlog.
“Across the system, the park and forest infrastructure isn’t up to snuff for Pennsylvania. It really doesn’t do justice to Penn’s Woods,” DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn said. “We have projects that have been in queue for 20 years.”
Wolf’s infrastructure plan, dubbed “Restore Pennsylvania,” would pay for a wide range of projects, from controlling floodwaters to expanding broadband access to fighting blight.
“If we get ‘Restore Pennsylvania,’ I guarantee you, we’ll open this up,” Wolf said.
The cascading falls are on the southern end of Lehigh Gorge State Park, a popular attraction in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania, 85 miles (137 kilometers) north of Philadelphia. It had drawn tourists from the city and throughout the region since the 1800s.
Game wardens have conducted sporadic patrols of Glen Onoko since the falls trail was closed three weeks ago. They have issued at least 10 warnings, according to game commission spokesman Travis Lau. People who violate the trail ban risk a $100 to $200 fine, but game commission officials said they seek to gain “voluntary compliance” from the public before resorting to fines.
House Republican leaders have said they agree the state’s crumbling infrastructure needs attention, but warn that a severance tax would hurt the economy.