'Horse Whisperer' wins a round in natural gas fight

  • SOFT TOUCH AND A HARD FIGHT: Rancher Buck Brannaman outside Sheridan, Wyoming

    Hal Clifford

A recent ruling in a Wyoming district court signals a win for ranchers who say energy companies are running roughshod over their land.

The ruling comes in response to a lawsuit from Mary Brannaman and her husband, Buck, the horse trainer who inspired the novel and film The Horse Whisperer (HCN, 11/5/01: Wyoming's Powder Keg). The Brannamans own and operate a ranch outside Sheridan, but they do not own the mineral rights beneath 600 acres of the land. These were leased to Michigan-based Paxton Resources Inc. by private owners.

In their lawsuit, the Brannamans claimed that Paxton did nothing to reclaim the 18,000 yards of topsoil it removed when it made roads and well pads. On Feb. 7, a jury ordered the company to pay the Brannamans $810,887 in damages.

Paxton President Greg Vadnais told The Associated Press his company will appeal the decision.

Buck Brannaman recently appeared on Radio High Country News to talk about the fight:

Like a guest at his own ranch

“On my place, for the last three years, it’s looked like an industrial zone, with pits and open trenches and wellheads — unprotected, with no fences around them. There were roads put in where they had no authority to do it, and they drove right through my place, where I do business with my clients, as if they owned it. I felt like I was a guest at my own place — and even an unwelcome guest.”

A marriage made in hell

“They told my wife in a meeting one time, they said, ‘Mary, this is the same as you and I being married. We can do whatever we want, whenever we want, and however we want.’ Now, if that was just an isolated statement, you could say he just made a mistake. But it turns out that that was how Paxton Energy was going to do business for the next three years.”

Faith is restored

“The perception from a lot of the landowners before any of this started was: You can’t fight a big corporation like this, they have too much power and too much influence. Nobody figured I had a prayer. But the deal is, when you get to court, it boils down to the conscience of 12 people. And my faith is restored in an awful lot of ways. … The people in the community spoke and said, ‘It’s not okay for the sake of development to go and ruin a person’s home.’ ”


“There are an awful lot of landowners who don’t have the means to retain a lawyer and go to court and fight back. And I’m hoping against hope that this will be a deterrent from someone coming on a man’s place and thinking that he can just do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. And (I’m hoping) that they (energy companies) are going to say, ‘Based on what happened at the Brannamans, we’re going to have to be careful. Because some of these landowners will bite back.’ ”

Not anti-energy

“This was never about being anti-energy and anti-development. I like to walk in my house and have the heat on. When I flip the switch, I want the lights to come on. And I know it takes this kind of development to produce that kind of result for me. I don’t want to sleep out on the ground in a sleeping bag for the sake of not using energy. It’s not really that at all. It’s a matter of: When you come to someone’s ranch, that’s their home, and they have rights to be there, and you have an obligation to respect that person.”

Sign of the times

“The new governor (Dave Freudenthal) (HCN, 2/17/03: Wyoming at a crossroads) is the first Democrat I’ve voted for in the last 20 years. And I’d probably do it again. He’s willing to look at things in a more balanced approach, rather than just look away from the troubles. So not all Republicans are good men just because they are Republicans, and not all good men are Republicans.”

A Radio High Country News interview with Buck Brannaman is available on CD. Contact [email protected], or call 800/905-1155.

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