A new sagebrush rebellion has spread across the West from Wyoming to Oregon. But this time the target is a big energy company , not the federal government.
El Paso Corp., the owner of the nation's largest natural gas pipeline system, angered ranchers and county officials this summer when it agreed with two environmental groups to set up the funds.
Even after El Paso Corp. cut a separate deal with the Public Lands Council, a group that promotes livestock grazing on public land, the anger has not subsided.
Construction has begun on the 675-mile "Ruby" natural gas pipeline that will run from Opal, Wyo., west to Malin, Ore.
Four counties have sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over its approval of the right-of-way for the pipeline, which will run just south of the Idaho border. And a coalition of counties -- including Cassia, Franklin, Oneida, Owyhee and Twin Falls counties in Idaho -- is trying to get El Paso to change the contract with the Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project and the Oregon Natural Desert Association.
These challenges come despite projections of 5,000 jobs, $70 million in state and local taxes during construction, and $280 million in annual property taxes to counties along the 675-mile route. At a time when unemployment is running at more than 14 percent in Nevada, El Paso's contractors are paying welders more than $75,000 a year.
"It's very troubling to me that many of these counties are willing to jeopardize these huge economic and social benefits," said Jim Cleary, president of El Paso's Western Pipeline Group.
Kent Connelly, chairman of the Lincoln County Commission in Wyoming, said the county wants the BLM to require El Paso to ensure there is no net loss of ranchers.
"We want Ruby in the ground. We want them paying taxes," he said. "We also want protection for the surface. We do not want to give up our ranchers."
Western Watersheds Project and the Oregon Natural Desert Association agreed not to challenge the pipeline in exchange for establishing two new nonprofit funds, operated independently of the groups. Each fund will be managed by a three-member board, with each environmental group appointing one representative, El Paso selecting a second representative, and both sides agreeing upon a third.
The Sagebrush Habitat Conservation Fund, established with Western Watersheds, got $15 million from El Paso. A fund set up with the Oregon Natural Desert Association got $7 million. The money will go for conservation easements and land purchases and to voluntarily retire
But that can happen now only under very specific conditions under federal law.
"This notion that this fund will be used to end grazing on public lands in the West is not true," Cleary said.
At the heart of the protests is the underlying premise of the two funds: that ending grazing in the sagebrush steppe that covers much of the West will improve habitat for sage grouse and nearly a dozen other species.
"They say taking cattle off of the range will help the grouse," said Jay Hardy, a county commissioner from Box Elder County in Utah. "I don't see that."
Ranchers also are skeptical that the people who end up selling their ranches and grazing privileges to the El Paso-funded nonprofits will actually be willing sellers.
"The Sagebrush Habitat Conservation Fund is not a coercive fund," said Brian Ertz, a spokesman for Western Watersheds. "Nevertheless, it might be economical for public lands ranchers to pull their cattle off of public land. It's a hugely subsidized endeavor."
Many of the grazing permits will be up for renewal in the next two years, and ranchers say Western Watersheds will challenge the permits, tying the ranchers up in court until they will be forced to sell.
"That's just not the American way," said Jeff Faulkner, a Gooding rancher who is the executive director of the Western Legacy Alliance.
Ertz said Western Watersheds goes to court to enforce the nation's environmental laws.
"If they are saying they want the stick, we're ready to produce that," he said. "We're holding the threat of enforcement of existing laws over their head. We have no stick unless they're breaking the law."
El Paso's Cleary says he understands where the ranchers are coming from, but he had to make a business decision that also is critical to the counties and the states that will share in the economic benefits. He said Idaho would benefit since it will have access to the natural gas that will be carried nearby.
"We need to consider where we would be had we not settled with Western Watersheds," Cleary said.
The Great Basin Resource Watch, Toiyabe Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife also have filed lawsuits over grouse. The Center for Biological Diversity has sued to stop the pipeline to protect fish species and habitat, and two American Indian tribes have sued over sacred archaeological sites.
El Paso's problem was that it didn't do its homework before wading into a long-simmering battle it did not understand, said John Freemuth, senior fellow at the Andrus Center for Public Policy and a political science professor at Boise State University. It was not just about economics.
"Culture does matter," Freemuth said.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484