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Drilling in West Pits Republican Policy Against Republican Base

Published: June 22, 2005

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RIFLE, Colo., June 15 - As a sometime carpenter, Keith Goddard has all the work he can handle in this place where new houses rise with the sun and a gas well is poked into the ground just about every other day.

But Mr. Goddard is worried sick. From his backyard here on Colorado's West Slope, he can see the little bit of unspoiled paradise left in this valley, the high, green top of the Roan Plateau. That piece of public land is where he goes to make his living in the fall, as a hunting guide. Energy companies want to drill on it.

"It's crazy what's going on," said Mr. Goddard, who has a face deeply reddened by the mountain sun.

Mr. Goddard, who says he is a political independent, has organized hunters to protest government plans for introducing gas wells into grazing areas for deer and elk. "I'm not against oil and gas development," he said, "but when you put wells in every 20 acres, that means you're no longer managing public lands for the public anymore."

Amid the clank, clatter and fire of the largest natural gas boom ever on public land in the West, a new kind of sagebrush rebellion is stirring. Ranchers, cowboys, small property owners and local government leaders - the core of the Republican base in the Rocky Mountain West - are chafing at the pace and scope of the Bush administration's push for energy development.

Some people are filing lawsuits, challenging federal authority to drill in certain areas. Others are protesting new gas and oil leases. Federal officials say they have received thousands of letters opposed to drilling in areas like the Roan Plateau. One state, Wyoming, has passed legislation giving landowners more say in how mineral rights beneath their property are tapped.

The battle cry is the same as in past movements: a call for local control over a distant federal landlord. But for the first time, it is the Republicans who find themselves the target of angry speeches about lost property rights and tone-deaf federal land managers. And people who have been on opposing sides of the major land battles in the West - mainly property owners and ranchers versus environmentalists - are now allies.

"The word from Washington is drill, drill, drill, and now they've basically destroyed our ranch," said Tweeti Blancett, a coordinator for George Bush's presidential campaign in San Juan County, N.M. "We've been in a firestorm down here. A lot of Republicans are upset."

The 32,000 acres of public land that Ms. Blancett and her husband, Linn, have long used for grazing cattle is now riddled with gas wells and pipelines. Petroleum byproducts have poisoned the water, she said, killing animals and causing the fertility rate to plummet.

The couple has hired Karen Budd-Falen, one of the best-known lawyers in fights over federal land policies. They have sued to try to force the federal Bureau of Land Management to clean up the land. Ms. Budd-Falen got her start working against environmental restrictions with the Mountain States Legal Foundation, an intellectual incubator for such property rights stalwarts as James Watt, the former interior secretary under President Ronald Reagan.

A prominent Republican from Cheyenne, Wyo., Ms. Budd-Falen said the drilling boom had turned the political world upside down in the West, home to the sagebrush rebellion of the 1970's and other later battles against federal government restrictions on development of public land. Now property owners, ranchers and home builders are worried about overdevelopment.

"I'm amazed at the number of calls we're getting from landowners who are really frustrated with what's going on," Ms. Budd-Falen said.

The fight has drawn in what is called the world's biggest Boy Scout ranch, the Philmont in northeast New Mexico; ranchers from Montana's Front Range and Wyoming's high desert; and retirees who have bought into the West's real estate boom only to find gas derricks blocking their mountain views.

For the Bush administration, the dispute poses a conundrum. The president has made oil and gas drilling a priority on federal lands. Last year, the Bureau of Land Management issued 6,052 permits to drill oil and gas wells, triple the number from 10 years ago. Nearly 40 million acres of public land outside Alaska now have oil and gas leases on them.

With natural gas prices more than doubling over the last five years, market demand is driving the boom, administration officials say. This region, sometimes called the Persian Gulf of gas, has enough natural gas to heat 55 million homes for almost 30 years, the government says.

But by pushing for so much drilling close to national parks, wilderness areas and favored hunting grounds, the administration has angered many communities.

In ths valley along the Colorado River, a Bush stronghold all the way to the Utah border and beyond, several counties and small towns have passed resolutions urging the administration to keep the industrial rigs out of some of the remaining wild land.

Colorado and New Mexico, in the center of the boom, are also where Democrats hope to tip the balance of the national electoral map. The oil and gas drilling, while providing jobs and an infusion of money to some areas, is seen as a threat to other regions that have prospered by catering to tourism and retirees.

"We hear those concerns and we are trying hard to address them," said Rebecca Watson, the assistant secretary of the interior for lands and mineral management. "We're trying to balance the concerns of property owners with wildlife and the environment and our energy needs."

What makes the fight particularly bitter is the nature of land ownership in much of the West. Because of the legacy of the homesteading era, people may own the land on which they live or graze livestock, but not own the mineral rights below the surface. Typically, the Bureau of Land Management sells leases for those mineral rights, which often results in energy companies putting up small industrial camps to get the gas beneath somebody's home.

These so-called split-estates properties cover 58 million acres in the West.

"We moved out here for peace and privacy, and now they trying to surround us with gas well pads," said Nancy Jacobsen, who owns 47 acres of high country just outside the town of Silt, not far from here.

Ms. Jacobsen is a leader in an effort to get an initiative on the state ballot that would give property owners more say in how oil and gas companies use their land. Five state legislatures took up bills on similar issues this year, but only Wyoming passed one.

Ms. Jacobsen said she registered as a Republican in the last election, but now considered herself an independent because of this issue. She said her property value fell by $300,000 in the last assessment because of the nearby gas development.

"What this industry is doing right now to people's property is unbelievable," she said.

Despite such discontent, Republican Party officials liken the issue here to a family fight, and say it is not likely to alter long-term political alliances.

"It's complicated, because what you have is a collision of two strong Republican ideals: respect for property rights and the need for a national energy policy," said Rachael Sunbarger, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Republican Party." But I don't think anyone changes their party affiliation over a single issue."

Of course, many people own both property and mineral rights. And very few of them have complained about an energy policy that has brought so much money to an area that looked to be played out nearly 30 years ago, during the last energy boom.

The Interior Department says it has issued new guidelines to ensure that energy companies are more responsive to property owners, give adequate notification of drilling, and minimize scars to the land.

"I have every empathy in the world for someone who has just found a dream home in the West and then an oil and gas company man knocks on their door and says we're going to start drilling," Ms. Watson, the interior official, said.

But the Interior Department came under sharp criticism a few months ago when it tried to auction a new round of natural gas leases in Colorado without telling the surface owners about it. The department blamed an agency Web site that used to post such notices but was down because of security concerns.

The other major issue involves drilling on large pieces of public land that have long been used by outdoor enthusiasts.

"It's tough to beat the federal government," said Gordon Johnston, a lifelong Republican and three-term county commissioner in Sublette County, Wyo. "But there are a lot of us who feel we have to fight them, because they're wrecking this land."

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