Another Law Gone Awry

Written by Dennis Sun

Ranchers in the Powder River Basin with oil and gas development on their land have really been frustrated and alarmed for the last year or so. If any part of the development on the surface or underground mineral rights crosses federal lands or mineral rights, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has a say, and there is a good chance that eight Native American tribes will also have a say on the whole development on those private lands.

Development could be as small as moving an access road or well site over a little bit, or it could involve the amount of dust, noise or anything disrupting the view-shed, but if that development involves a potential site with Native American artifacts discovered by the BLM archeologists, then consultation with the tribes is likely.

The worst-case scenario we’ve heard from an oil developer was when his company tried to get a drilling permit from the BLM, as there must have been some federal lands or mineral rights involved. The proposed action was on an existing well pad with all of the facilities – including access road, tanks, etc. The company had been trying for three years to get the drilling permit, and despite two consultations with the tribes, there has been no decision. These actions by BLM cause some developers to just give up and go elsewhere to drill. BLM says only 12 percent of drilling permits are affected by tribal consultations. Well, if an action is wrong, that is 12 percent too many.

Most of the drilling in our area is horizontal drilling. The laterals can go out for quite a distance, so it is easy to cross federal mineral rights. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act calls for arch surveys and tribe consultations when federal land or minerals are impacted. Some in BLM interpreted this section of the law strictly. If that’s what the law says, that’s what it says.

But, knowing there is going to be some kick-back from landowners and developers, we need good communication, which, evidently, has not happened. Even the tribes are frustrated. These ranchers are not used to dealing with federal land managers, and the land involved is mostly deeded.

As history states, there could have been as many as 12 tribes in northeast Wyoming. Now, ranchers have to deal with about eight tribes, and each has a different culture. Some ranchers, expressing frustration, have not allowed the tribes on their lands, and one can’t blame them. These sites and actions, sacred to the tribes, are looked at a real intrusion to their private property rights, and they are.

Look, we all know that the tribes were in the area at some time, but so were the Spaniards and the country of Mexico, and didn’t we purchase the lands from France in the Louisiana Purchase? Why the tribes and not them? Why are we tearing down history and culture now in the South by destroying statues and protecting other sites in the West so fiercely? We need to save them all, within reason, and there are common sense methods to do it.

Most landowners want to protect these sites. I want to know where they are and to take care of them, but I don’t want them to threaten my business. There are ways to do both in a timely manner.

The worst thing to happen now is to go to the other extreme. That doesn’t solve the issue. We have to find a middle of the road here, and we can.