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Pipeline Deals With Environmental Groups Have Ranchers Angry

When the Houston-based El Paso Corporation announced plans to build a 680-mile natural gas pipeline from Malin, Oregon to Opal, Wyoming, energy observers knew the project was certain generate some opposition.

So it’s not surprising those predictions have come to pass. What is surprising is the source of that anger: cattle ranchers in Oregon, Nevada and Wyoming.  David Nogueras reports.

More than two years after permitting began, crews have finally broken ground all along the path of the Ruby Pipeline.

At this site, 25 miles outside of Lakeview, a few hundred people are at work. The ground here is soft and devoid of trees.  Three excavators are clearing a 115-foot wide pathway.

The 42-inch pipe will go in the middle of that lane, known as a right-of-way. It’s the width of three school buses parked bumper to bumper. 

Although it gets narrower at some environmentally sensitive points, the path, will continue for 680 miles.

Ruby Pipeline Construction - Photos by David Nogueras

Once the pipe is in the ground, workers will restore the area as close as possible it’s original condition.  The company estimates construction of the pipeline will create about 5,000 jobs.

But because the path cuts though many delicate ecosystems, and crosses more than a thousand rivers and streams, El Paso knew early on it would face opposition from environmental groups.  

El Paso spokesman Richard Wheatley says two groups in particular threatened to hold up the process: Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project and the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association.

Richard Wheatley: “In order for us to move forward it was incumbent for us to try to reach some sort of compromise agreement that would be as positive in nature as we could create and yet that would eliminate opposition to the pipeline project itself.”

El Paso figured that for every month the project was held up by litigation it would cost the company $19 million. 

So the company decided to make some deals with the environmental groups to head off lawsuits instead.

El Paso agreed to pay a total of $22 million into two new non-profit funds. $15 million went to into a fund set up by Western Watersheds, and $7 million went into a fund set up by the Oregon Natural Desert Association. 

Boards of directors for the two funds are to be appointed by El Paso and each respective group.

Wheatley says El Paso made the deal for a number of reasons. He says in addition to removing the threat of litigation, the funds will help El Paso fulfill requirements by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, that the company engage in land reclamation and re-vegetation. 

Brent Fenty is the Executive Director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association.  He says his group entered into the agreement for reasons of their own.

Brent Fenty: “There were a few different intents behind the settlement agreement. One was voluntary grazing permit retirement, land acquisition and also retoration were all purposes conceived when we reached the settlement.”

And it’s that first thing Fenty puts on his list — voluntary grazing permit retirement — that has unleashed a firestorm of controversy within the ranching community. 

The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service issue grazing permits to ranchers.  But environmental groups say grazing harms public lands.

The idea behind the settlement is to give the two groups money to purchase grazing permits from ranchers who are willing to sell. Once they have the permits, they can stop the grazing.

Both sides agree that at the moment there are only limited instances in which this can be done.  But they disagree about whether and how this practice might be expanded.

While to an outsider that might seem harmless, it’s provoked much controversy and suspicion in the ranching community.

Dean Rhoads: “What El Paso did was they jumped in bed with the devil.”

That’s Dean Rhoads, a Nevada state Senator and a rancher. The “devil” that Rhoads is referring to is Western Watersheds Project, a longtime opponent of grazing on public lands.

Jon Marvel: “Public lands ranching is the largest single negative impact on public lands amounting to 250 million acres in the American West.”

Jon Marvel is the Western Watersheds Project’s founder and executive director.

Jon Marvel: “The basic costs of continuing public lands ranching is the loss of our wildlife heritage as well as clean water, healthy watersheds and recreation on pubic lands on wild areas.”

In ranching communities in the West, Marvel’s group has earned a reputation for playing hardball, challenging literally thousands of individual grazing permits in court.  That’s really at the core of discontent.

Adel is a ranching town in southeastern Lake County.   There’s a post office, and a gas station slash deli where men in cowboy hats gather in the evenings to shoot pool.

Down the road, John O’Keeffe is corralling his horses for the night. He’s got roughly a thousand head of cattle he runs on federal grazing permits in the spring, summer and fall.

John O’Keeffe: “Yeah, I think El Paso made a real big mistake.  You know if there were merits to the lawsuit they should have been heard on the merits of that not throw the livestock industry under the bus so they could go an build their pipeline.”

O’Keeffe chairs the Public Land Committee of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. He says even though the money is supposed to be used to buy permits from willing buyers, continued litigation by Western Watersheds could force ranchers’ hands.

John O’Keeffe: “You know through this litigation process these groups will create a situation where these ranchers can be in a real bind and you know you’ve got mortgages and bills and operating loans and you can become a willing seller though no fault of your own.”

Western Watersheds’ founder Jon Marvel is unapologetic about his group’s opposition to public land grazing allotments, but he rejects the notion that the funds could be used for anything other than willing buyer/seller relationships.

The final details of the two agreements remain under wraps as part of  confidentiality agreements.  But El Paso spokesman Richard Wheatley says proceeds from the funds are prohibited from being used for litigation and lobbying.

Looking back, Wheatley says the company does have regrets, not for the deals it made, but for not communicating with the ranching community ahead of time.

Richard Wheatley: “We didn’t do a good enough job briefing them on our rationale and why were undertaking these environmental commitments. So what we did as a result after seeing the anger on their part is we did some outreach with the Public Lands Council out of Washington D.C.”

The Public Lands Council is a group that represents ranchers who use public lands.  Wheatley says El Paso has reached an agreement in principle with the group that would provide a $15 million trust set up much like those born out of the deal with the Western Watersheds Project and the Oregon Natural Desert Association.

The Public Lands Council has its annual meeting next week, and council members are expected to vote on whether to accept the money.