You probably are familiar with the saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” What you may not know is that every forest, especially the temperate forests of our region, has an often-overlooked area known as the “understory.”

The understory is the underlying layer of vegetation growing between the ground and forest canopy . . . the beautiful tree cover that is on the cusp of bursting into the vibrant colors of fall. The understory gives the forest its beauty and strength.

Human understories are places of beauty and strength as well. For me, Southwestern Pennsylvania has never been defined by lines on a map; never been defined by Allegheny, Beaver, Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties. We are not defined by Marcellus Shale. Southwestern Pennsylvania has always been, and always will be, defined by us, the people who live, work and play here. Names on the maps are the canopy, and we are the understory of our region.

I grew up standing on the shoulders of generations of hard-working men and women who built our nation with their bare hands while defining who we are. Our ancestors cast long shadows. They built our region’s economy, were captains of industry and leading innovators of their time. They were involved in our communities and schools. They were political and never backed down from what they believed in.

Many of the kids I grew up with in the Mon Valley came from steel families. The Golden Gate Bridge, Empire State Building and many other iconic structures were built, at least in part, with our steel. Making steel was hard work, risky work. Our environment was pushed to its limits. But our fathers and grandfathers went to work, and earned a family-sustaining wage. The industry worked to protect our natural resources to ensure a sustainable environment and economic progress.

Although industry along the river is gone, it isn’t difficult to close our eyes and see smoke billowing from a furnace at the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Allenport plant, where they made the oil well production tubing that protects wellbore casing from wear, tear and corrosion. Patents for threaded pipe joints and thread protectors represented state-of-the-art technology in oil and gas drilling . . . in 1938. It was important that the pipe threads used to interconnect the pipe sections be undamaged and formed in true concentricity around the pipe. Not only were we production innovators, we were safety innovators.

We are outdoors people with beautiful forests, clean streams and fresh air. We hunt, fish, bike, hike, swim, paddle board and kayak. But we need jobs.

If you are a reader of this column, you know I support family-sustaining jobs. Shale development gives us those jobs. A study prepared by Price Waterhouse Coopers states that the oil and natural gas industries supported more than 322,000 jobs in Pennsylvania in 2015, producing $23 billion in wages and $44.5 billion in economic impact.

It’s no surprise that shale development is spurring economic growth across Pennsylvania. Hundreds of local infrastructure projects have moved forward as a result of Pennsylvania Act 13. These projects languished for years due to lack of funding. Energy companies must continue to develop technologies that make the fracking process safer and we must support this effort. Lawmakers should not ban fracking or place a moratorium on drilling activity.

Greene and Washington counties have embraced the far-reaching economic impacts provided by the industry. Because of our many small farms and abundant natural resources, leaders in both counties have educated themselves. They understand the economic impacts and the science behind the operations and the collaborative solutions developed to safeguard our natural environment. Yes, there is risk . . . manageable risk. Had leaders of the past not taken risks, our region’s history would be quite different.

Our legacy is within our reach. Have you checked your shadow lately?

Jamie Protin is founder and principal of The Protin Group in Belle Vernon.

To submit business-related columns, email Rick Shrum at rshrum@observer-reporter.com.

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