How we lost our ranch to gas drilling

  • Rosemary Bilchak

 

Our cattle, our dreams and our ranching lives are now a thing of the past. My husband and I felt obligated to sell everything we had worked for over nine years in Silt, in western Colorado, to escape the impacts of gas drilling.

As one who has lived through the experience, I can say that the drilling that rapidly expanded around our 200-acre ranch took away everything that we came to expect of country living. Traffic increased, and so did the dust; in addition to the well pads we saw everyday, there were pipelines and roads. Irrigation ditches were severed, weeds encroached on the disturbed grounds, fences got cut.

Our land represented our retirement. Before we put our ranch on the market, my husband and I tried to determine how much we could afford to lose on our investment, as studies have shown the obvious: No one wants to live near drilling. We were among the lucky — we owned our mineral rights. The man who bought our ranch wanted those rights; he cared nothing for the land.

It's good the new owner doesn't live in the area fulltime, because gas drilling makes a place unlivable. A nearby creek, Divide Creek, was literally bubbling with methane from a leaking casing on a well. Yet a company's failure to abide by the laws governing drilling rarely brings a significant fine. Fines are levied by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which is dominated by industry representatives.

Until you experience it, you cannot fathom the noise of these operations, the explosions that rattle your home, the humming of the generators and the rumble of increased traffic. Sitting on our porch at night was like watching a scene from hell as the clouds reflected red from flaring gas.

The painful thing is that we thought we were protected. When we purchased our ranch in 1995, we went to the courthouse and read about the leasing of our mineral rights by the former owner. According to this document, the lease would expire in 1998, so we figured, since drilling wasn't evident in the area at the time, we'd take a chance, and deemed ourselves safe when that deadline passed.

In 2003, we received notice that the company wanted to drill several wells on our ranch, with a schematic of where the wells, roads and pipelines were to be located. This preliminary work was performed on a desk in a high-rise building in Denver, with no chance for us to be involved. There was no mention of compressor stations, waste pits or roads. To our shock, one of the proposed wells was in the middle of our best-producing alfalfa field.

When we protested that the lease had expired, we were informed that our ranch had been "unitized," a federal designation that pools large tracts of land into a "unit" for the convenience of the drilling company. Unitization essentially changes two significant aspects of the lease: Any well spacings that have been previously negotiated are negated (the location and density of the wells is now controlled by the Bureau of Land Management), and, the lease becomes, essentially, a lease in perpetuity. No one should be fooled into thinking that owning the mineral rights will protect landowners.

Faced with, and finally accepting the inevitable, and hoping that drilling could be done responsibly, we were interested in finding alternative places for the wells. We also worried about accident prevention and mitigation. This last fear was driven by the calamities, such as leaks of mine waste, that we had seen our neighbors endure.

We met with industry representatives to negotiate a surface use agreement. We were given assurances, specifically regarding the monitoring equipment in case of a spill or leak, but we were not convinced the devices would be in place. We had no power and felt it. We dared not call the landmen on their assurances, which never seemed believable, because we also knew that all of the cards were in their hands. By law, if a landowner is deemed to be recalcitrant, demanding or obstreperous, the drilling company has the right to post a laughable bond amount and drill on the property without a surface use agreement. As a landowner, you walk a fine line in these mock negotiations. You have to approach industry as a supplicant, not as an equal.

Let landowners elsewhere be warned: By the time the industry representatives come knocking on your door, it's too late.

Rosemary Bilchak and her husband now live in Hotchkiss, Colorado.

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND CONSERVATION MANAGER
    SUMMARY Leads, administers and manages the land conservation, conservation easement stewardship, and property management activities of the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department within...
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM ATTORNEY, NEVADA
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Staff Attorney who is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.