A tranquil scene belies Deer Lakes Park drilling debate

Visitors use quiet spot for disc golf, fishing


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Most days, Wilma Gaughan makes it out to Deer Lakes Park.

With her airedale, Bridget, by her side, the 73-year-old Indiana Township resident usually spends an hour walking through the Allegheny County park, strolling around the three lakes and sometimes along other trails.

That's what the two were doing on a sunny Thursday last week in a park that was largely quiet except for the sounds of the occasional car driving through, some people fishing and kids playing on playground sets. The park can get crowded, especially when the trout fishing season begins, she said, but it wasn't as she and Bridget finished their walk.

She described the park as "a well-kept secret."

Now, the secret is out.

Allegheny County's proposal to lease the mineral rights beneath the green space for natural gas development has made Deer Lakes Park a frequent topic of conversation for the past several months, especially since last month.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced March 17 that the county had reached an agreement with Range Resources in partnership with Huntley & Huntley for the off-site extraction of natural gas beneath the park. The deal would yield a $4.7 million bonus payment and 18 percent in royalties, plus $3 million for a fund to make improvements to the county's nine parks, including Deer Lakes.

Range Resources plans to build three well pads on private property outside the park. The company has not yet made public the planned location of two of the sites, but the third will be located on the farm owned by Ken and Chris Gulick off Fairfield Road, in a location Range representatives have described as about 800 feet from the boundary of the park.

The proposal, which some have praised and others have pummelled, now must be considered by Allegheny County Council. It has already been the subject of many hours of discussion, and county council has scheduled sessions for Tuesday and Wednesday that will continue the debate for many hours more.

Much of the talk surrounding the plan has taken place within the walls of the Allegheny County Courthouse in Downtown, a part of the county where people often sit in traffic before they can drive through a tunnel.

Deer Lakes Park, located about 20 miles by car north of Downtown, is in a more rural part of the county, a place where signs beside a curved tunnel on Little Deer Creek Road instruct drivers to honk to make sure no one is coming through from the other side.

It's there -- on 1,180 acres covering parts of both Frazer and West Deer -- that Deer Lakes Park sits. The property that makes up the park, much of it covered by woods, was acquired beginning in 1958 and mostly completed by 1968, though some additional parcels were added through 1975, according to county spokeswoman Amie Downs.

Near the western entrance to the park, there are three spring-fed lakes, which the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission manages for fishing. They contain fish such as trout, largemouth bass and bluegill.

A fishing theme continues throughout the park, with groves and shelters bearing names such as "rock bass" and "walleye."

Trout season opened earlier this month, and Pam Adams, 52, of the Natrona Heights section of Harrison was there with her nephews. She has been coming to fish at Deer Lakes for a decade, she said. This year, she caught only one fish on her first day. But her nephews caught about six trout.

The lakes are where Bob and Pat Henry of West Deer taught their grandchildren -- two grandsons, ages 11 and 8, and a 4-year-old granddaughter -- how to fish. On the afternoon they were there last week, nothing was biting, Mr. Henry said.

Without their grandchildren, the Henrys also occasionally come to the park, which is about seven minutes from their house, to take walks together.

"It really is a beautiful setting," Mrs. Henry said.

Fish aren't the only wildlife in the park. Ms. Adams said there are many deer, and she recently spotted a wild turkey.

Near the lakes is a playground, and in between the two attractions is a water spray park. It's a popular spot in the warm months, said 21-year-old Haleigh Patterson, who also lives in Natrona Heights but who grew up in West Deer. She was at the playground Thursday with her sister, her nearly 2-year-old son and her 2-week-old daughter.

There's another playground farther into park property. Throughout the park, about 25 miles or so of trails are used by horseback riders, mountain bikers and hikers, said Lee Klevens of West Deer, who with his wife organizes the Friends of Deer Lakes Park group to maintain the trail system.

The park has been home for nearly 30 years to the Nicholas E. Wagman Observatory, owned and operated by the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh. The group holds regular star parties, free to members of the public interested in stargazing.

A newer addition is the park's disc golf course, opened in 2006. The course, designed for a golf-like competition that involves throwing discs into baskets, sees about 30,000 rounds of disc golf played a year, said J. Gary Dropcho, a Pine resident who is course superintendent for the Pittsburgh Flying Disk Society.

"It's very popular," he said.

The course is one of the local venues that will play host to the Professional Disc Golf Association's World Championships in the summer of 2015, bringing together about 400 of the best disc golfers in the world, he said.

It's difficult for the county to track how many people visit Deer Lakes Park each year, since people such as birders and joggers do not need to check in and out of the park.

But Ms. Downs, the county spokeswoman, said figures from attendance at events such as scouting activities, Wagman star parties, shelter rentals and Venture Outdoors programs reveal that last year the park had 35,855 visitors.

Thursday afternoon, as Ms. Gaughan and her dog ended their walk, it was a quiet park they were leaving. Ms. Gaughan, who is retired but still works occasionally as a mental health nurse, said she moved to Indiana Township seven years ago, and said she tells her friends her neighborhood is so quiet that she can sit outside and "listen to the insects breathe."

"The whole area out here is so nice and peaceful," she said.


Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.

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