Oil clashes with elk in the Book Cliffs
The real king of Vernal comes into view at the eastern end of town, where dinosaurs give way to rows of petroleum company offices. Oil and gas are still a significant part of the local economy, and surrounding towns far from the tourist route also gain their living - and sometimes their names, like Gusher or Bonanza - from the industry. Outspoken environmentalists are few and far between in Uintah County, a Mormon outpost in one of the West's most conservative states.
But petroleum and dinosaurs are not the only draws to the area. From Vernal, a few dirt roads wind south into the East Tavaputs Plateau, which rises gradually from desert scrub in the Uintah Basin to aspen and fir forests. Sixty air miles later, the plateau ends abruptly at the Roan Cliffs and Book Cliffs. The plateau, usually known only as the Book Cliffs, is a patchwork of federal, state, tribal and private lands. In spite of the political subdivisions, it is a largely unbroken landscape, representing some of the most remote country in the lower 48. Nine years ago, five experienced staffers from the federal Bureau of Land Management and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources gathered around a campfire on one of those remote acres. Here, they hatched a plan to conserve the unique wildness and wildlife in the Book Cliffs - in a way the local community would support.
The streamsides and meadows of the Book Cliffs were showing the effects of too many cattle and too little grass, and the agency staffers thought they saw a way to restore the landscape.
They envisioned a partnership to shift the management emphasis from cattle to wildlife. Several of the private ranches that controlled most of the public land on the plateau were for sale, and - with the help of funding from national conservation groups - the agencies might be able to acquire the land. Some of the federal and state grazing allotments could then be used for wildlife, decreasing the impacts of cattle grazing, helping to increase the area's elk herd, and providing opportunities to reintroduce native species like cutthroat trout.
It sounded so good that a lot of people around here got on board, including three of the four ranchers in the Book Cliffs and the handful of local environmentalists. They were joined by regional sporting groups and two centrist national conservation groups, The Nature Conservancy and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. As pieces of the plan fell into place, backers thought local support for the effort would ensure its success.
They were wrong. While some consensus efforts are being fought by environmentalists who fear a surrender to local economic interests - such as in Quincy, Calif. (HCN, 9/29/97) - here the opposition would come from Oscar Wyatt, an oil-industry multimillionaire with extensive holdings around Vernal whose wife describes him, somewhat humorously, as a modern version of a Russian czar.
The hidden land
Millions of people who pass through northeastern Utah skirt the lower edge of the Book Cliffs, but few realize what's on top. The thousand-foot-high cliffline makes up the longest continuous escarpment in the world, dominating the view for drivers along 250 miles of Interstate 70 and U.S. Highway 191 from Grand Junction, Colo., to Price, Utah.
"There isn't a paved road between the Colorado line and the Green River," says Will Durant, president of the Uinta Mountain Club, a local environmental group. "To drive into the Book Cliffs, you take extra tires, cans of gasoline, and a handyman's jack."
The plateau has few human inhabitants, and is well known only to oilmen and to hunters and other outdoorspeople who appreciate the elk and deer herds. National-level officials at the Bureau of Land Management have said that the area is second only to Yellowstone National Park in terms of its importance to wildlife.
In the years after the conservation plan was proposed, the agency staffers who had sat around that campfire in the Book Cliffs watched their dream materialize. The Nature Conservancy bought one ranch for $1.3 million in 1991, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation bought a second ranch for about $1 million in 1993. Most of the ranches' private land, about 10,000 acres, was resold to the government agencies.
The real point of the purchases - grazing rights to some 200,000 acres of state and federal land - was divided between the state wildlife agency and the conservation groups.
The owner of another ranch, Burt DeLambert, wasn't interested in selling but supported the proposal, running his cattle on Nature Conservancy allotments to disperse the impact of his herd.
"I thought it was a pretty good idea to make room for the elk," DeLambert says. "And (The Nature Conservancy) made room for them honestly, by buying the land instead of trying to squeeze us out."
Altogether, the number of cattle on the land was reduced by about 500, leaving about 2,200 on the various grazing allotments.
The Bureau of Land Management had promised that the proposal wouldn't increase federal holdings, and made good on its promise by transferring some federal land near Vernal to Uintah County.
The proposal, formally called the Book Cliffs Conservation Initiative, found support because it didn't seem radical. Cattle would be reduced in number, but not kicked off the plateau entirely. Because the impact of the remaining cattle would be diffused, the habitat would recover and support an increase in the resident herd of elk from 2,000 to 7,500. A management plan for the area would be developed through consensus, creating a "multiple-use showcase" by maintaining access for hunting and oil and gas extraction.
"The initiative has moved with surprising speed and support," said a joint publication of the agencies and conservation groups in 1991. In addition to the land acquisitions, the goals were to "demonstrate a management commitment to the area's unique ecological values ... (and) focus on increased wildlife density and diversity ... with the assistance of all interested parties."
Things were going so smoothly that Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt had accepted an invitation to speak at a dedication ceremony in 1996 for the initiative.
Still, one piece hadn't fallen into place. When the Nature Conservancy and the Elk Foundation tried to buy the 5,600-acre S&H; Ranch in 1995, there were conflicting appraisals of its value. Because the groups believed there were problems with the owner's appraisal, they were not willing to meet the $3 million asking price.
But someone else was. The ranch was sold to a corporation headed by Oscar Wyatt. Called Sweetwater Ranch after Wyatt's purchase, the ranch has 150,000 acres of public-lands grazing permits.
Wyatt, 73, is the founder and former chairman of the Houston-based Coastal Corp., a company with active drilling operations around Vernal.
He soon got into the consensus process in his own way. A month before the dedication ceremony was to be held, he sued nearly everyone involved with the Book Cliffs proposal, charging that an increased elk herd would compete with his cattle for forage and make his ranch unworkable.
One of Wyatt's lawyers, Matt Lalli, was quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune as saying that the proposed initiative amounted to "a global conspiracy." It's the lawsuit, and the possibility of future legal actions, that has nearly all the key players in the initiative lying low and makes them hesitant to speak on the record for this story. When Wyatt showed up, he changed everything.
He built an oil empire
By many accounts, Wyatt, a lifelong Democrat, is a colorful and hard-driving character.
According to the Houston Chronicle, Wyatt, a mechanical engineer by training, started the Hardly Able Oil Co. in 1951 on an $800 loan, using his 1949 Ford as collateral.
In 1955, he founded Coastal States Oil and Gas Co., gathering gas from small producers and combining it with Coastal's gas before selling the gas in large quantities to big pipelines. Coastal States had revenues of $12 billion in 1996, with net profits of $402 million.
As he built Coastal Corp. into the nation's 12th-largest oil company, an empire that includes 1,700 gas stations and natural-gas pipelines across Colorado and Wyoming, Wyatt regularly dragged his opponents, and even his allies, into court. In 1984, for example, he sued a Venezuelan oil company, claiming the company was trying to drive his company out of business.
More recently, he got bad publicity on a global scale, as Coastal Corp. or its subsidiaries attempted major oil deals with Muammar Qaddafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein of Iraq.
"Oscar Wyatt would sup with the devil if he could make money from it," wrote Forbes Magazine columnist Toni Mack in 1996. At a display of the Russian crown jewels in Houston last year, Wyatt's wife, socialite Lynn Wyatt, described her husband as having a lot in common with Czar Peter the Great.
Wyatt stepped down as chairman of Coastal Corp. last year, but has remained on the corporation's board of directors. At last year's gathering of Coastal Corp. stockholders, a video tribute to Wyatt offered praise from both the right (Bob Dole) and the left (Jesse Jackson).
Wyatt's attack on the consensus effort in the Book Cliffs was consistent with his aggressive business tactics. His lawsuit named 15 defendants, ranging from individual agency staffers to The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Department of the Interior, and it charged that the initiative's backers were illegally conspiring to convert the Book Cliffs into a wildlife preserve.
The heart of the legal action against the agency concerned the use of grazing permits for wildlife. Wyatt said that as the Book Cliffs elk herd increased since 1994, most of the elk moved from the state-land allotments to Wyatt's grazing allotments, decreasing the forage available to his cattle. He also argued that the Bureau of Land Management was preventing access to state and federal lands and interfering with water improvements he had planned for his grazing allotments.
Before Wyatt, most local people had focused on the benefits of the proposal. But, says the Uinta Mountain Club's Durant, an M.D. who has lived in Vernal since 1983, "there was quiet opposition, and that galvanized around (Wyatt's) lawsuit. Everyone with a bone to pick gathered around him."
Uintah County and representatives from the Ute Tribe, whose Uintah and Ouray Reservation sprawls around the cliffs, began to voice objections, saying they had been excluded from the planning process. Led by county commissioner Glen McKee, some Vernal residents vowed to stop the dedication ceremony in its tracks.
"Our intent was to block all roads to the ceremony with oilfield traffic," recalls Bill Ryan, a member of the county-appointed Public Lands Advisory Council. "We would have just filled the roads full so that no one could have gotten through. We thought, "We're going to have a demonstration to show that there's opposition to this thing." "
In the face of the threats, the August 1996 dedication ceremony was cancelled.
A negative chain reaction
Wyatt's concerns may have been contagious because they weren't necessarily baseless. Although the Bureau of Land Management has not denied any oil and gas permits since the ranches were acquired, the proposed plan would have raised the standards of land management and made life a little tougher for extractive industry in the Book Cliffs.
Before the lawsuit, the county had written a letter in support of the initiative, but county representatives began to worry about access to mining operations and environmental restrictions on local industry. Wyatt's complaints about access to public lands also raised concerns among local oil and gas interests, who said the proposal would interfere with their future projects.
The proposal stated that mining in the Book Cliffs would continue in an "environmentally sensitive" manner. "But "environmentally sensitive" probably means rules and regulations that we can't live with," says Bill Ryan, who also owns an oil and gas consulting business in Vernal. The proposal's focus on wildlife also concerned some local residents, says Ryan.
"This is something that sounded benign and beneficial," he says, "but we were looking at a change in emphasis toward wildlife to the point that it impacts revenue coming into the county."
The initiative would have accelerated a trend that Durant says is already under way. He says the BLM's approach to land management is expanding to include wildlife and wildland values, as well as commodity production. The initiative would have permitted continued oil and gas drilling, Durant says, but the BLM's vision now includes stream restoration and reintroduction of extirpated species.
But he also says the county's concerns are overblown. "They're a bunch of guys looking for 19th century solutions to 21st century problems. They keep hoping the Book Cliffs will be a hydrocarbon bonanza."
In the 1970s, the availability of $88 billion in federal subsidies for synthetic fuel production created a rush on tar sand in the Book Cliffs and oil shale in nearby western Colorado. The boom collapsed in the early 1980s, thanks to a decline in oil prices and the Reagan administration's hostility to oil subsidies.
After the depression which the bust caused in northeastern Utah - a depression Durant says the area is only beginning to overcome - the Uintah County commissioners made a controversial proposal. Arguing that easier access to the Book Cliffs would strengthen the industrial base of the county, they wanted to build a paved road from Ouray to I-70. The proposal was defeated.
The Ute Indian Tribe also had concerns about the Book Cliffs Conservation Initiative. Their reservation borders the initiative area, and they feared that increasing the elk herd in the Book Cliffs would decrease the deer herd in the area. Unlike elk, deer are a traditional food source for the tribe. "Changing the grazing permits is something the tribe would support," says Bobby Chapoose, director of the Ute Tribe Fish and Wildlife Department, "but we believe the elk are impacting the deer herd. Seventy-five hundred elk are fine, as long as there's also 10,000 deer down there."
A 1997 10th Circuit Court decision has given the tribe more clout in the area. The decision said that the historic boundaries of the reservation, which extend to the Colorado line and encompass most of the Book Cliffs, should remain in place. Although the implications of the decision are still unclear, federal agencies are now required to treat the tribe as an equal partner in the area's land management decisions. "But we want to be more of a cooperator than an adversary," says Chapoose. "We're not going to step on or over anyone to satisfy the tribe's desires."
The tribe, the county, and local oil and gas representatives all attribute their eleventh-hour criticism to lack of public information about the initiative. Raymond Murray, a member of the Ute Tribal Business Council and a Book Cliffs landowner, says only the two agencies and the two conservation groups were involved in the initiative. "They were just trying to push this thing through," he says.
Ryan, a founding member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's local chapter, now says, "I wish I had every dime I ever gave to (the Elk Foundation) back and that they'd never heard of the Book Cliffs. Elk Foundation members were outright lied to."
Bill Christensen of the Elk Foundation disagrees. "Many of the players have forgotten that they were involved all the way," he says. "The county and the tribe were invited to the table back in 1990. And we've only bought off on this because of the plan's commitment to multiple use."
Christensen adds that Ryan's attitude is not representative of Elk Foundation members, even in Uintah County. A fund-raising banquet held in Vernal on the weekend of March 28 drew over 200 guests and netted $15,000. The chapter's former chairman, Tom Dabbs, says that the group has even advertised its support for the initiative on the chapter's letterhead.
"We were proud to be the home chapter for the Book Cliffs initiative," he says.
In some ways, however, Ryan is a typical Elk Foundation member. Many members are politically conservative, and the great majority are hunters and anglers. The group advocates multiple use, and - like The Nature Conservancy - concentrates on acquiring habitat rather than attacking development. Instead of rallying opposition to Wyatt's efforts among its members, the Elk Foundation prefers to appear nonconfrontational. In the Bugle, the group's magazine, the Book Cliffs plan is described in detail; the lawsuits and controversy are only briefly mentioned.
Getting beyond conspiracy theory
Because they depend on the cooperation and agreement of so many, consensus efforts are always vulnerable. One holdout, especially a holdout with a lot of power, can dominate - or destroy - the process. Speculating on Wyatt's reasons for interfering with the Book Cliffs initiative is a favorite pastime in Vernal.
Some say the Sweetwater Ranch was overvalued and that Wyatt is looking to blame others for the failure of his cattle operation, while others wonder if he's acting on a knee-jerk hatred of the federal government. Because Wyatt has not built a house for himself on the ranch, some think Sweetwater may be less of a retirement retreat than an attempt to secure oil and gas deposits in the Book Cliffs, or to ensure that the land remains open for future large-scale mining of tar sands. Wyatt may be, after all, an oilman first and last.
But in an interview, Wyatt says he's concerned about Uintah County, not his own pocketbook. If he could do it over again, he says, he probably wouldn't buy the ranch.
"I've had chances to sell the ranch for more than I paid for it, but I can't abandon the local people who are getting abused by this," he says.
There is also talk of Wyatt's behind-the-scenes influence, including alleged promises from the oilman to the county that he would bring a railroad and a waferboard plant into the area. Wyatt also paid for some of the county representatives, including Bill Ryan, to be trained in the Bureau of Land Management consensus process. Ryan acknowledges Wyatt's support, but says, "I can still get in Oscar's face when I don't agree with him. I don't care that he paid for me."
Nancy Bostick, a member of the Uinta Mountain Club, says it's not easy to get in Wyatt's face. Bostick was a temporary employee of one of Coastal's subsidiaries in the summer of 1996. When she wrote a letter to the editor of the Vernal paper supporting the initiative, she was fired within two weeks, an event that was reported in the Salt Lake Tribune. Wyatt's Coastal Corp. has two offices in the Vernal area, and Coastal's business remains important to local industry contractors.
"In my personal opinion, we're economic hostages here," says Bostick. "Those that don't have Coastal as a customer would like to have Coastal as a customer. I do believe that there are a lot of people who say "I wish this (lawsuit) had never happened; the original initiative was a good idea." They're from all walks of life, but they don't dare speak out. That's a very real thing out here.
"When you start pulling all the economic strands out," she says, "you've got one very powerful man. The question is, should (Wyatt) be more powerful than the millions of owners of public land? I don't think so."
A U.S. district judge threw out Wyatt's lawsuit last July.
"You have to get beyond speculation and stealth and conspiracy theory," an unsympathetic Judge Dee Benson told Wyatt's lawyer, Matt Lalli.
But even without a favorable court ruling, Wyatt has done a fair amount of damage to the initiative. He has continued his efforts to acquire the grazing permits for 41,000 acres of state land, permits now held by the Division of Wildlife for elk grazing. Wyatt says that since elk are now competing with his cattle for summer range and water, grazing rights on state land would provide his cattle with needed summer forage.
In a lengthy "bidding war" last summer, the Division of Wildlife ultimately paid an extra $30,000 to meet Wyatt's competing offer and exchanged litigation threats with the agency in charge of maximizing income from state lands, the Utah State Institutional and Trust Lands Administration.
Wyatt then claimed that the Division of Wildlife lease had expired during the negotiation process. Now he's asking for another chance to bid on the permits from his very deep pockets.
The struggle continues
The initiative's backers and their supporters are trying to keep the consensus effort going. Although the Bureau of Land Management could have used its normal land-planning process to move the Book Cliffs initiative ahead, the agencies still hoped to win the support of the initiative's opponents. After Wyatt's lawsuit was filed, and before it was thrown out, the BLM tried to bring all participants to the table. They came, but the meetings were usually described as "brawls' and "shouting matches."
Wyatt continued to call both the initiative and the continuing consensus process a "conspiracy." In a February 1997 letter read to a group by another of his lawyers, Tom Bachtell, he said, "By holding these meetings, they are building a record that they think will entitle and justify them to usurp property rights of all the people involved in the Book Cliffs ... Please join us in helping us to stop these people in their tracks. If we're lucky, we might be able to put a few in jail."
These new accusations set the tone for the meetings. "You have one hell of a time trying to reach consensus," says Raymond Murray. "We spend most of our time arguing." Nancy Bostick adds, "There's just been a lot of posturing and name-calling. My blood pressure probably rises 40 points every time I go to one of the meetings."
The group's executive committee decided that smaller, more specialized committees would be more productive, and organized three committees of 10 to 15 people that have been meeting every other week since January of this year. Wyatt doesn't attend these meetings, but he is represented by his ranch manager. In comparison with accounts of the larger meetings, the smaller groups are relaxed. Although there are obvious points of disagreement, the members seem comfortable with one another, often ignoring formal rules of order in favor of informal voice votes.
But the teams aren't dealing with the most contentious issues. The acquired lands are not on the table, since the sales were completed several years ago. Neither are the increased elk numbers, since the size of the elk herds is determined independently by the state Division of Wildlife.
Instead, the committees often tackle questions that are not directly related to the lands acquired in the initiative. At a recent meeting, one committee talked about off-road vehicles in the Book Cliffs, sorting through public comments and members' concerns to reach common ground. That committee decided to support no new trail construction in the area, a recommendation that will be presented to the larger group when it reconvenes. Other topics have included seasonal road closures and preservation of historic cabins in the Book Cliffs.
Chris Montague of The Nature Conservancy says he is "decently optimistic," and agency staffers feel that this year's efforts have been positive. "I thought I would wind up hating some of these folks," says Will Durant. "They have different value systems, but I like them. It's infinitely preferable to lobbing grenades over the fence."
Yet progress is difficult to measure, and critics say that local economic interests still dominate the process. For now, in the wake of Wyatt, the effort seems fragmented.
Because of the hostile nature of the previous meetings, the agencies have said that they will not participate in the larger meetings until a professional facilitator is brought in. "The (larger) meetings will be going forward, but we want to make sure that they're productive for all attendees. There's no use in having a lot of acrimony and disagreement without proper facilitation," says Bureau of Land Management Vernal District manager Dave Howell.
The Elk Foundation and the Uinta Mountain Club have supported the agencies' position, but other members of the larger group, including The Nature Conservancy, tribal and county representatives, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, have continued to meet without them.
The Bureau of Land Management will use the conclusions of the group to write an amended Book Cliffs resource management plan and an environmental impact statement for the amended plan, a project it plans to begin sometime this year.
Meanwhile, the county has hired an outside consultant to write its own plan for the Book Cliffs. "We thought the group might be falling apart," says Bill Ryan. "We worried there would be no (environmental impact statement) or a badly written one."
Uintah County Commissioner Herb Snyder maintains that the county is not "trying to throw a monkey wrench into things," but many participants see the county's actions as detrimental to the productive efforts of the more specialized groups.
"All these groups spinning off undermines what we're doing," says Durant. And, says Bill Christensen of the Elk Foundation, "when it comes down to brass tacks, the Bureau of Land Management - not the (consensus process) or any of the participants - is responsible for the final decisions."
While maneuvering continues in Vernal, the Division of Wildlife continues to rehabilitate streams on its holdings in the Book Cliffs. The director of the Division has instructed the Vernal office to "stabilize" the elk herd on Wyatt's grazing allotments, says regional supervisor Walt Donaldson, until the agencies study elk migration and forage use on the allotments. "If the elk are causing a problem with the range and habitat that's out there, the Division is not interested in causing more growth of elk," he says.
The Division's Wildlife Board has also prohibited deer hunting in the entire Book Cliffs area for the past two years, and the Division of Wildlife plans further scientific studies to address the tribe's concerns about competition between deer and elk.
Bachtell, Wyatt's lawyer, says that Wyatt has recently offered to fund all or part of the various agencies' studies. "They don't have the data to make long-term decisions about the Book Cliffs. They need that data, and we're willing to help them get it," Bachtell says. "We're anxious to put money on the ground instead of in the courtroom." The agencies say they are considering the offer.
"I want my ranch to get profitable," Wyatt says, "but that can't happen when the elk are starving my cattle out."
Karen Budd-Falen, a Wyoming lawyer who represents wise-use groups in their fight against federal environmental regulations, has recently joined Wyatt's legal team as a specialist in public-land grazing.
Now, nearly 10 years after the Book Cliffs Initiative began, its fate remains unclear. Instead of implementing an innovative land restoration plan, most financial resources are being spent in courtrooms and on studies intended to prove one point or another. On the other hand, in an area where oil and cattle have always been dominant, and where environmental influence has always been weak, the surprise may be that a plan to restore a huge expanse of land remains the focus of everyone's attention.
Looking back at the past decade, Will Durant of the Uinta Mountain Club says, "If Oscar hadn't come in, it (the original initiative) would have been a done deal. But now we're getting to know each other, and we can go ahead and work together not just on this but on other problems. In the end, we might come up with a more benign and visionary plan for the Book Cliffs than we would have had in the first place." n
Michelle Nijhuis is an intern at High Country News. This is the first lead written by an intern since May 1985, when Bruce Farling wrote "Mining may come to a wilderness." HCN's contributing editor, Ray Ring, contributed to this story.
You can contact ...
* Vernal Office of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, 435/789-3103;
* BLM district office in Vernal, 435/781-4400;
* Utah field office, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, 801/254-1922;
* Utah field office, The Nature Conservancy, 801/531-0999.