A rancher must sell out after losing a court case against a gas company

  • Nelson Harvey

 

It was a hot day in the summer of 2009, and Dow Rippy was out on his four-wheeler in western Colorado, checking on his cows.

As he drove, tracing the southern edge of his property, Rippy followed the route of a gas pipeline that the Houston-based gas company, SG Interests, was building across the ranch.

Dow and his wife, Kathy, owned about 1,900 acres of hilly oak brush south of Silt, Colo., near the heart of Colorado’s gas patch. They had acquired the land over 15 years, though Dow’s family had been ranching in the area since they originally emigrated from Scotland in the late 1860s, after the Civil War.

In 2007, Dow signed a contract allowing SG Interests to build a pipeline across his land. The agreement established a 30-foot-wide corridor for the pipeline and required the company to repair fences and slopes along its route. Yet as Dow reached the southeastern edge of his ranch on that day in 2009, he noticed not only that a section of pipeline had been left unburied; it also appeared to be well outside of the boundary allowed in his contract.

Dow had always been a fierce defender of his property rights, and this made him angry. He ordered SG pipeline workers to leave until he had spoken to the company’s managers, and then he closed his gate, locking their equipment inside.

Dow didn’t know it then, but that day marked the beginning of the end of his ranching career. This past October, he put his ranch up for auction to settle a court battle with SG Interests. He’d lost that battle, and was ordered to pay the company more than $700,000 in damages.

It started with a shouting match. When Dow accused SG executives of mislaying the pipeline, they denied the error and threatened to sue if the couple didn’t let them keep working. The parties negotiated for months, but ultimately the Rippys opted to sue, both for trespassing and for breach of contract.

At the trial, held in Grand Junction in 2011, SG presented a slew of land title documents showing that the Rippys didn’t actually own the land where they thought the pipeline should go. New surveys showed that SG was correct. SG also filed a counter-claim, alleging that Dow’s decision to lock workers out of his property had cost the gas company upwards of $400,000 in lost productivity.

In a devastating decision for the family, the jury ruled in favor of SG Interests and awarded the company damages and attorney fees. In a scramble to raise the cash, the Rippys considered selling their mineral or development rights, but neither transaction could close fast enough. And selling only part of the ranch, Dow said, would cripple its bottom line.

“The problem is, the ranch is a whole, and if you split it up, then you take away the ability for the ranch to be financially sound,” he said.

When auction day came last month, several of the couple’s neighbors were there to bid on it. Some parties also bid online, including SG Interests, which bought the very parcel, in the southeastern corner of the ranch, where its pipeline dispute with the Rippys began.  The company’s land manager, Eric Sanford, told me the firm had a compressor station nearby and needed easier access.

It was a stinging end to the couple’s life as ranchers: They’d been forced off the ranch to pay the gas company, and now the company owned a piece of the ranch, too.

It may be that the very trait that made Dow such a good rancher -- his defense of private property rights and minute attention to the condition of his land -- was what drove him to take legal action, a decision that sparked the disintegration of his ranching career.

In the last 60 years, Colorado’s ranchlands have shrunk by about 7.5 million acres, according to the Colorado Conservation Trust. Ranchers sell out for many reasons, but it’s especially heartbreaking when they have to do it against their will. Nowadays, Dow Rippy says he wishes that he had never gone to court to defend his property rights.

“This was something that should have been settled with a handshake,” he said. “In court, the way they talk doesn’t fit your ears.”

Today, Dow runs Burning Mountain Bowl, a bowling alley in the small western Colorado town of New Castle. On a given day, above the din of crashing pins and rock music, Rippy oversees about 20 employees, making sure that the lanes are buffed, the customers are happy and the bills are paid.

He still wears a cowboy hat and wrangler jeans.

Nelson Harvey is, a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a freelance print and radio journalist based in western Colorado.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...