Environmentalist brings community attention to hydrofracking

Jack Ramsden's life dedication is to spread the news about hydrofracking and other environmental issues in Central New York.

If you Google “hydrofracking lease maps in Onondaga County,” the first link will bring you to a map that looks as if it’s stained with dried blood. The drips and drabs congregate mostly in Skaneateles, Marcellus, Onondaga, Spafford, Otisco and Tully, but slowly creep higher into other parts of Central New York.

The map looks like a splatter painting, but the red dots and blotches are not random. They are the result of research conducted by Jack Ramsden and other volunteers, who were the first to take time to record each parcel of land in Onondaga County that was leased to oil companies for a process called hydrofracking.

“He has this unending optimism and enthusiasm and work ethic. For him, in his early 60s, it’s pretty inspirational for me to see that.”
- Ellen Ramsden, Jack Ramsden's daughter

Before the map was created, many people in Central New York had very little idea of how much land was leased for hydrofracking. With volunteers, Ramsden researched about 1,900 leases signed for oil and gas drilling in Onondaga County and helped create the map, which was published on the front page of The Post-Standard on Dec. 28, 2009.

“People were shocked," Ramsden said. "It just set the tone for the rest of the discussion. It crystallized the idea that this thing was coming—fracking was coming to New York.”

Hydrofracking is a term for hydraulic fracturing. Oil companies drill into the ground and use water, sand and chemicals to extract the gas. President Barack Obama has promoted the practice along with many other people, mostly because it brings jobs to the United States, making the country more self-sufficient.

Some people, however, are concerned with the amount of chemicals being pumped into the ground during the process.

The damage the drilling may do to the environment is also of concern. Trees are stripped away, leaving barren scars on the land. The soil is force-fed with toxic chemicals. Rock is smashed and broken.

While on his way to a reunion for members of his military unit, Ramsden passed a hydrofracking site in Pennsylvania. The sight made him sick.

“I couldn’t enjoy the reunion,” he said. He said he could imagine the same destruction of trees and soil taking place in Syracuse. It was that site that helped motivate him to prevent hydrofracking from coming to his hometown.

Ramsden’s past work as an army staff sergeant, military police security specialist, team member of Destiny USA and even call center employee for Cingular Wireless does not evoke thoughts of the environment, but the environment is one of his passions. After all, he grew up on a dairy farm in Syracuse, overlooking Otisco Lake.

In the 1970s and 1980s, he hopped back and forth between the park police and the military. They were high-stress jobs, long hours and anything but close to nature.

In 1990, he found himself in a ranger uniform, working at Crater Lake National Park. Six years later, he was in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Although he loved his work in the National Park Service, Ramsden was working 70 to 80 hours a week. The family farm in Syracuse and retirement were calling.

He returned to his hometown and the natural beauty he loves so much. After participating in some community meetings about the Onondaga Lake cleanup, he became involved with various volunteer efforts.

“Once you get into those things it’s like quicksand,” Ramsden said.

Ramsden is currently the secretary of the Community Participation Working Group for Onondaga Lake Cleanup and the group secretary of the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter. He is an advocate for the Onondaga Lake remediation and a strong dissenter to hydrofracking.

On a drive through almost any stretch of Onondaga County, one will most likely see the black and somewhat ominous “no frack” signs that dot people’s lawns. That is Ramsden’s work as well. He orders and distributes the signs and carries a few in his car, just in case someone wants one. He even has some wire to stick the signs in the ground.

It was the map, however, that got people’s attention from the front page of The Post-Standard, to the desks of the Department of Environmental Conservation, depicting in white and red what was heading towards Onondaga County.

“It really is Jack’s work that made that happen,” said Lindsay Speer, who works with community groups of the Onondaga Nation. “That information really blew the issue of hydrofracking locally.”

In addition to his role in creating the lease map, Ramsden also worked at different events, distributing signs and buttons and recruiting volunteers.

“He put in hundreds of hours both doing research himself and coordinating hundreds of volunteers and interns,” said Andy Mager, a staff person at the Syracuse Peace Council and a coordinator of the Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation.

His youngest daughter, Ellen Ramsden, who is in her 20s, said she is inspired by her father’s dedication and positive outlook.

“He has this unending optimism and enthusiasm and work ethic. For him, in his early 60s, it’s pretty inspirational for me to see that," she said.

Ramsden thinks his outlook on life came from growing up on the family farm. He would work 14-hour days with his father, starting at 5 a.m. to milk the cows and ending around 8 p.m. to put hay in the barn.

“When you’re a dairy farmer you have to shovel manure every day,” he said. “You’re in manure up to your knees. My dad never let anything make him negative. No matter what happened my dad said you got to deal with it.”

Ramsden said he will continue the fight, the volunteering, the raising awareness. Although his voice against hydrofracking is loud and strong, it is also peaceful.

“A lot of people in the area know him, and they know him for good reasons,” Ellen Ramsden said. “He’s still got that motivation to be an active part of his community. He does it because he really wants to do it.”

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