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Pinedale Online > News > October 2004 > Ranchers aren't being screwed over surface damages
Ranchers aren't being screwed over surface damages
by Dawn Ballou, Editor, Pinedale Online!
October 27, 2004

Editor's Note: Scroll to the end of this article to see Feedback reader response to this story.

An online article that appeared in the Casper-Star Tribune today (Wednesday, October 27), just begs a response. In the article entitled, "Journalist: Sportsmen wary of environmental policies", statements are made that local ranchers in Sublette County aren't being justly compensated for surface damages by local oil and gas companies. Don't think for a minute that local ranchers aren't being very generously compensated by oil and gas companies for any surface damage to their property or anytime company personnel cross rancher's private lands related to exploration activities. They are, and paid well.

The comments came during the annual Stroock Forum on Wyoming Lands and People. According to the article, one of the speakers was local Sublette County rancher J.J. Healy, who addressed a panel on property rights and environmental quality. Healy said the owners of land with underlying minerals that do not belong to them face a "somewhat frightening'' prospect. "Surface owners have very little in the way of rights as to what really happens to their property," he said. He pointed out that there is no law assuring them of compensation for damage to their land from mineral exploration. "We should be ahead of the curve in protecting our interests and property rights." Also according to the article, that concern was echoed by the executive director of the Upper Green River Valley Coalition, Linda Baker, of Pinedale. "It's a travesty of this part of the country to march across private land like that without notification and without just compensation. It really breaks my heart," she said.

I'm all for the efforts of the numerous environmental groups to watchdog the oil and gas industry here to make sure they do the mineral extraction in our county in a way that doesn't pollute the land, protects wildlife values, and is in areas that don't have high scenic or recreation values. But, sometimes the tactics these groups use seem to go too far in leading the outside world into thinking our land is being raped and pillaged and the local ranchers royally screwed in the process.

It costs oil and gas companies millions of dollars to put in a well, even one that turns up dry. Throwing a few thousand dollars at a local rancher to keep them happy in the process is peanuts, and they do it everywhere, all the time, around here. They pay ranchers thousands of dollars a year just to retain the prospect of future possible drilling rights, more than many of these people often make from their ranching operations. If oil and gas company personnel want to come across private land, even just to do a surface seismic survey that doesn't disturb the ground, they pay ranchers thousands of dollars for the right for the couple of days inconvenience. If they squish a culvert or disturb a fence in the process, they take care of replacing it at no cost or trouble to the rancher, often with better equipment than was there originally. If a rancher squawks about anything, the oil and gas companies don't hesitate to basically throw more money at him to appease his concerns and make him happy. A few thousand dollars compared to the millions to drill a well is nothing to these companies, and they try very hard to keep the local ranchers and community very happy with what they are doing. They DO address environmental impact issues all the time and throw lots of money at mitigation, education and resource damage restoration.

Now, I've heard of some local ranchers who have gotten greedy and demanded too much, even for the oil and gas companies to put up with. Like wanting four-string wire on fences instead of the original three strand that was there, or replacing miles of fence with all brand new posts well beyond the impact area. There comes a point, even for the oil and gas companies, when they decide it is the rancher who is being unreasonable, and they shut him down. It doesn't happen very often because the oil and gas companies have very deep pockets.

Those are some of the voices you are hearing in the news identified as local ranchers opposed to the oil and gas drilling in the area. Rich "hobby ranchers" do not make their livelihoods from their ranching activities. Their grandfathers didn't homestead the ranches they live on. We don't hear very many of the long-time local ranchers, whose families have been here for generations, saying they haven't been treated right by the oil and gas companies for any surface damage they've caused. From what I personally know, they are compensated well and are always asked for permission to cross the land and do things as much as possible in coordination with the rancher's schedules and wishes. Oil and gas companies are not marching across private land without notification to the rancher. The companies are paying generous compensation for any damages caused, unless the rancher is totally unwilling to cooperate. The reality is, when someone else owns the mineral rights under the land, the rancher by law must allow access. When we hear of a rancher who claims he hasn't been treated right by one of these companies, I really have to question just who wasn't being reasonable in the deal. - Dawn Ballou, Editor, Pinedale Online!

"I felt I had to comment on your editorial about surface rights and impacts of the oil and gas companies. When a gas company came knocking on my door several years ago and asked to seismo my place, I really had no recourse, as I did not own all of the minerals. They paid me $25, about $1 an acre. I was assured that there would be no impact whatsoever, including ruts on the road or squashed sage, yet I had a virtual highway trampled through my fields from the thumper trucks and lots of flagging was left all over, which took hours of my time to pick up.

Also, when they came, I told them that my house sat above a spring, and what would they do if the thumping disrupted the spring or liquified the sandy soil and my house slid down the hill. I was told gee, that would be too bad. We will look into that if it happens. All that for $25. The time I spent picking up flagging was worth more than the $25 they gave me, and 4 years later, I could still see the road they left with the thumper trucks.

Also, I am not sure what ranchers you are talking to, but the old timers I have spoken to have mentioned the serious impacts the roads and pads have had on their irrigation systems and the hay and grazing production of their fields. If you read the standard contracts many of these ranchers have signed, and I have, they have very little rights or recourse if something does go bad. Most cannot afford a lawyer to help for long, so they just give up.

On many ranches, especially of late, ranchers are lucky to break even. And breaking even could be a $100,000 pay day at the sale barn, but $100K does not go too far these days, when you factor in all the costs of doing business, from vet bills to hay equipment maintenance and paying the help. I have yet to hear of a rancher being paid "thousands" simply for seismo or for anyone to cross their land. Although it may cost a gas company several million to drill a well, they stand to recoop hundreds of millions of net profit from each well. If they did not, they simply would not drill. With that in mind, I really don't think a 4 wire fence is out of line. Although steel is getting more expensive, one more wire really is not that bad." -Sublette County, Wyoming

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