Thursday, March 24, 2011

Gas pipeline company blasted for its role in purchasing Idaho grazing leases

To say that El Paso Western Pipeline Group President Jim Cleary was met with an unfriendly welcome at the Idaho Capitol Wednesday might be an understatement.

Cleary, whose entity is building the Ruby gas pipeline that will run underground from southwestern Wyoming to northwestern Nevada, stood before lawmakers Wednesday to discuss his company’s agreement with the Western Watersheds Project (WWP), an environmental group characterized as “domestic terrorists” by Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale.

The agreement – a settlement of a lawsuit WWP filed over the construction project – forces El Paso to pay $15 million through a 10-year time span to the Sagebrush Habitat Conservation Fund. The fund is intended to be used solely conservation efforts, but several lawmakers on the House and Senate resource committees inferred that the money and the partnership are being used to force ranchers out of business by buying up federal grazing permits.

The intriguing thing is that the project doesn’t even touch Idaho soil; it runs through northern Utah. The settlement allows for the fund to conduct conservation activities in the five southern Idaho counties because they are adjacent to counties where pipeline construction is taking place.

It is also interesting that – as noted by Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, – El Paso is already required to restore the disturbed lands once construction is completed. Wood questioned the need for the conservation fund if mitigation is already taking place in affected areas. Cleary said that WWP was concerned with animals and plants that inhabit the area might be adversely affected by construction and that the fund will help soften the blow to native species.

The fund is prohibited from using litigation – or threats of it – to engage in conservation efforts, but lawmakers are skeptical there isn’t some tag-teaming going on between WWP and the fund over grazing permits.

On its website, WWP boasts that it holds 4,000 acres of Idaho land previously used for cattle grazing and that it is now using the property for conservation efforts. The group also brags about its past litigation in order to move toward improved ecological stewardship over public lands.

Ranchers holding federal and state grazing permits must renew them every 10 years and can be bid against by willing buyers at that time. The fund itself is not allowed to bid on leases, but WWP can – and does – bid for the leases in order to retire them permanently. The group feels it is in the best interest of the environment to end unsuitable land practices.

Ranchers can also sell leases at any time during the 10-year period if another party is interested in the land.

The fund can only buy permits from ranchers who want to sell, but Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Twin Falls, contends that WWP is attempting to intimidate ranchers to force the sale of leases to the fund. “This is just another tack they are taking,” said Brackett, adding that he has a letter from an Arizona rancher who has dealt with WWP and has been threatened with litigation over his grazing permit. “That’s how you get a willing seller,” he explained. “This is not much different than that.”

During the hearing, Brackett fired away at Cleary, saying that allowing the fund to buy up grazing leases is devastating to local economies. “It destroys the tax base,” he said.

Cleary, on the defense all afternoon, said that’s not the purpose of the deal. “It is certainly not the intent to impair communities or their tax bases,” Cleary explained. He noted that only willing buyers sell grazing leases and that the fund itself has no way of putting pressure ranchers to give up their grazing rights.

Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakely, was one of the most outspoken critics of Leary, El Paso, and the $15 million fund. Bedke said that the by working out a deal with WWP, El Paso sacrificed the interests of Idaho. “You got yours and we didn’t get ours here,” said Bedke. “You had the ability to cut your deal and the rest of us were left to twist here.”

Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, echoed Bedke’s sentiments. “That land is completely out of production now,” said Siddoway.

Rep. Lenore Hardy Barrett, R-Challis, didn’t mince words when it came her turn to speak. “You dodged a bullet, but you funded the firing squad that’s coming for the rest of us,” said Barrett, saying that El Paso got everything it wanted from the deal.

But Cleary stayed firm, contending that no one has forced ranchers to sell leases. “There are people who have their own reasons for doing transactions,” he explained, adding that ranchers often sell leases in order to fund retirements or to generate funds to re-tool other ranching operations.

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