There’s not a lot to see if you’re driving along Interstate 90 between Buffalo and Gillette. The burnt-peanut colored hills rise out of dusty green sage brush country then give way to grasslands. But this area is the heart of what was once a boom of coal-bed methane development for the state.
In the fury of draining phenomenal amounts of natural gas from coal seams in the early 2000s, roads and pipelines were laid like a web across northern Wyoming. The promise attached to that work was that after the wells ran dry they would be plugged, the roads seeded and the landscape returned to a near pristine state.
The Bureau of Land Management now has another idea: use the roads for recreation.
The federal agency is assessing public input on whether about 600 miles of roads should be reclaimed to keep Wyoming wild or maintained to give hunters, hikers and recreationists better access to public lands. Officials expect a final decision by January.
Not everyone is on board. Some see the advantage of making sure people can reach isolated areas that would be otherwise difficult to visit. Others say this sounds like an industry idea and the BLM needs to hold operators to an obligation to repair what’s been disturbed.
“I am landowner in Campbell County and I have experienced since the ‘70s development of oil and gas wells on my property,” wrote Bernadette Barlow, in a letter to the BLM. “It is unimaginable to think that the BLM would forgive coal-bed methane companies from meeting requirements to reclaim the roads used to access their wells.”
Kristen Lendhardt, spokesman for Wyoming Bureau of Land Management, said the agency wants to hear locals’ opinions. No decision has been made, she said.
The agency has offered four alternatives with various levels of reclamation. One is to reclaim all the roads as expected. On the opposite end of the spectrum, all those routes would be left alone. The BLM’s preferred choice is to keep nearly 200 miles of road open to the public — if local landowners provide easements in the majority of those routes. The agency would hold open nearly 40 miles on a limited basis and close nearly 400 miles of road.
For the Campbell County Commissioners, keeping the roads is a swell plan. About 83 percent of the county is private land, but nearly 12 percent is federal, tucked in amongst ranches and homes across the county.
“Developing meaningful recreational opportunities with adequate access becomes a challenge,” the local lawmakers wrote in a public comment to the Bureau of Land Management, which included their hopes that companies could help build restrooms or campgrounds in lieu of cleaning up roads.
Luke Todd’s family business, the Sports Lure, serves hunters and fishermen in Buffalo. Access, he said, is one of the most frequent frustrations he hears from hunters.
“A lot of it is landlocked,” he said of the area east of Buffalo. “The Game and Fish sends out a lot of tags, but the access can be very difficult.”
But if they are going to keep the roads, there needs to be benefits to both sides, he said. Local property owners have their rights, too, and they have understandable concerns about how people will treat the land, respect boundaries and clean up after themselves, he said.
“There’s got to be a balance somewhere to protect the interest of the leaseholders, ranchers and still allow access to this kind of isolated area,” he said.
Coal-bed methane hit Wyoming like a storm, peaking around 2007. The natural gas dollars propelled counties like Johnson into wealth after years of suffering low oil prices.
But as gas prices fell, large companies began to jump ship on coal-bed methane. Smaller, financially weaker firms gobbled up wells at a pittance. In many cases, these small prospectors fell into bankruptcy soon after. The result for Wyoming was a crisis. Whereas the coal-bed methane bust in Colorado left dozens of orphaned wells on the landscape, Wyoming faced thousands. And the industry left a bad odor for many locals: debts unpaid, taxes in default, waste water damage in grazing country.
For some, the reclamation of these roads is a farewell to all of that, or should be.
This proposal is an onerous move from the BLM that could set a precedent for the thousands of miles of roads laid for CBM, said Jill Morrison, organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowners group based in Sheridan.
“None of the landowners are for it. Not one,” she said of the proposal.
Ranchers already have trouble with trespass and lack of enforcement from the Bureau of Land Management, she said.
Betty Iberlin wrote to the BLM that the roads take away from the feeling of her ranch, of “remoteness.” But her main concern was what it would mean to have more people out on the roads in such an isolated area. What happens if they break down, she asked.
“Will they tear up roads, get stuck, run out of gas, get lost or pretend they are lost, add roadside trash, disturb wildlife/livestock, pilfer rocks, gather firewood, want to hide out from an abusive husband, generally snoop around buildings, shoot prairie dogs. All this has happened on our place,” she wrote.
For Morrison, who’s followed industry in the Powder River Basin for decades, this proposal reeks of industry pressure. Companies want to get out of reclamation or use these roads in the future, she said.
In the area considered by the BLM, more than 2,000 wells are noted, some are plugged, some are producing and some are in the early stages of obtaining rights to drill.
Though coal-bed methane’s big days are done, oil and gas development in the Powder River Basin is far from over. Leases for potential drilling in the area have sold at a premium price per acre as operators jockey for position in what many expect to be a boom of activity in the years to come.
Casey Freise, acting field manager for the Buffalo Field Office, said the BLM’s consideration of keeping roads open has nothing to do with the bust of coal-bed methane. It’s simply the cycle of production, he said.
“The life expectancy of these coal-bed wells is 10 to 15 years,” he said. “We would have been here no matter what.”
Though orphaned wells and infrastructure has been a challenge in the coal-bed industry as companies skip out or go defunct, these roads are all tied to operators who are fulfilling their reclamation obligations, Freise said.
Lendhardt with the BLM pushed back on the notion from some commenters that the agency was giving oil and gas companies a pass.
“There is sometimes this misconception that we are letting operators off the hook,” she said. “That’s not the case here; there are reclamation obligations that industry is going to be responsible for. This doesn’t change that.”
Though the agency has a preferred way forward, reclaiming some of the roads and leaving others open, that could change, she said.
The agency’s work is complicated and it can be confusing, she added. At this point the agency is just asking.
“Development is winding down. We are in the process of reclaiming this area, knowing that these roads are there. Is the public using them?” she said.
Not all the responses to BLM were of one mind. Rod Litzel, the district supervisor for Johnson County Weed and Pest, questioned whether the Bureau of Land Management was ready to take care of the invasive weeds that can potentially spread due to traffic. He notes leafy spurge, a plague in northern Wyoming, spreading across ranch land like a grass fire and outcompeting the native vegetation.
On the other hand, he said in a handwritten letter, he thinks of his dad, a hunter who still tries to get out and take part of that tradition as he gets older.
“I understand the need for more access, and access for those like my dad — that the only way they can enjoy the hunt is from a vehicle or ATV,” he said.