Monday, August 9, 2010

Pro-ranching group to get $15 million

El Paso Corp. and the Public Lands Council worked out a $15 million deal over the Ruby Pipeline, Sen. Dean Rhoads, R-Tuscarora, said Friday, but the arrangement is raising questions.

“It’s just a tentative agreement that will be decided at the Public Lands Council annual membership meeting in September in Pendleton, Ore.,” said the senator, who is Nevada’s voting delegate to the council.

Rhoads said the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association is a party to the pact, which calls for El Paso to provide the $15 million over 10 years, with half of the money going into an interest-bearing fund to be used for rangeland improvements, office expenses and research.

He said the pending agreement prohibits use of the fund for litigation, however, there is an alternative. Interest money could be used to pay dues from livestock permittees belonging to the Public Lands Council to free up other money to establish a separate fund for litigation.

“The organization collects about $250,000 a year in dues,” Rhoads said.

The other half of the $15 million may stay with El Paso and be “dibbled out over the years,” he said.

El Paso spokesman Richard Wheatley said via e-mail Friday he didn’t have any comment on the reported agreement.

Ellison talks to governor

Elko County Commissioner John Ellison said after a meeting with Gov. Jim Gibbons Friday the governor planned to talk with El Paso.

“The devil is in the details,” Ellison said, explaining his concern is that the agreement should give ranchers enough latitude to use the $15 million to offset problems Western Watersheds would create.

“We’ll have knots and bumps along the way, but at the end of the day, we’ll get what we need,” he said. “There are nine counties who could be affected by this.”

Counties along the 680-mile Ruby Pipeline route from Wyoming to Oregon aren’t part of the agreement, and they may be looking at their own solutions at a meeting Aug. 12 in Salt Lake City that Elko County Commissioner Demar Dahl said is slated at the Utah State Capitol.

Dahl also said he believes the nine counties should be involved in whatever agreement is worked out between El Paso and the Public Lands Council.

“I think it’s important everybody is involved. The counties are in a strong position,” he said.

Assemblyman John Carpenter, R-Elko, also said the counties should be “main players in the agreement. It seems to me the counties really hold the cards.”

The ranchers are worried about litigation because El Paso earlier signed a $15 million conservation fund agreement with Western Watersheds Project and a $5 million fund with the Oregon Natural Desert Association in exchange for their agreement to drop opposition to the $3 billion pipeline that will extend from Wyoming to Oregon.

Western Watersheds and the Oregon organization stated one of their goals will be to buy grazing permits from willing sellers and retire them. Ranchers are concerned about the impact to their industry.

Rhoads said he still doesn’t feel El Paso has made the company’s position clear on buying grazing allotments and changing the Taylor Grazing Act.

The act doesn’t allow federal agencies to retire grazing permits.

Western Watersheds comments

Western Watersheds Project Executive Director Jon Marvel said Friday that “since the fund will only make purchases from willing sellers, no ranchers will be ‘driven out of business.’ Ranchers can choose to negotiate with the fund, and the fund has already been contacted by at least one interested Nevada rancher.”

Marvel made the statement to Dee Holzel of the Winnemucca-based Silver Pinyon Journal.

“The settlement between WWP and Ruby Pipeline LLC is an innovative and unprecedented cooperative effort to mitigate for negative impacts on sagebrush landscapes caused by a major industrial installation, the Ruby Pipeline,” Marvel said.

He also said cited examples where grazing permits have been retired without a change to the Taylor Grazing Act, including Great Basin National Park near Baker in Nevada; Kanab County, Utah; Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks; and the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon.

“All of these buyouts of federal grazing permits were from willing sellers and were paid for with privately raised funds like the Sagebrush Habitation Conservation Fund,” Marvel said, referring to the new fund El Paso created for Western Watersheds.

Dahl said Western Watersheds has never had a problem with filing lawsuits, so he wants to see that there is money on the other side to defend against them.

Carpenter agreed.

“It seems to me the counties need funds with no strings attached to fight Western Watersheds,” he said.

Rhoads said the details about the Public Lands Council deal with El Paso were disclosed in a phone conference early Friday involving roughly 40 people, and “there was a lot of criticism and some praise. The leadership thought they got all they could get.”

U.S. Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., hopes ranchers, Elko County officials and El Paso “can come to a satisfactory agreement that will place the ranchers on equal footing,” spokesman Stewart Bybee said Friday. “He is deeply concerned with the prospects of funds provided to Western Watersheds being used to remove Nevada ranchers off of their allotments.”

Western Legacy Alliance

The Western Legacy Alliance wasn’t part of the agreement with the Public Lands Council but met with El Paso representatives earlier Thursday in Salt Lake city, and the alliance has its own solution to offer, according to Jeff Faulkner of Gooding, Idaho, executive director for the alliance.

“We had what we thought was a viable option for users and the counties, as well. We will try to get to the county commissioners meeting and explain to the counties what our plan is. I think they will like it,” Faulkner said.

He said he was surprised when he learned the Public Lands Council and El Paso had an agreement on the table.

Western Legacy Alliance member and TS Ranch manager Dan Gralian said Friday he doesn’t believe the alliance should “condone the fact that El Paso cut a deal with the devil behind our backs,” but he also doesn’t believe the ranchers and public lands users should “accept bribe money from El Paso.”

Gralian said his first reaction upon to the Public Lands Council agreement with El Paso is “shame and embarrassment. It puts us on the same level as WWP.”

Rhoads said the agreement is “almost like accepting dirty money,” but at least the Public Lands Council is doing something. He said the El Paso agreement with Western Watersheds opened the door to financial settlements over protests.

El Paso started work on the pipeline a week ago, after receiving Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval.

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