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.

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