Reclaiming the land: One rancher’s struggle to regain vital grazing land from coal mining – Casper Star-Tribune, July 26, 2014

July 28, 2014

Categories: Agriculture, Coal, Landowner Rights, News

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By TREVOR GRAFF

Leland Turner jumped out of his Ford Super Duty into a sea of grassland near the border of what once was his grazing land.

Across a barbed wire fence, on the horizon, the sea of green came to an abrupt halt as a series of dragline excavators rose from the giant pit of Cloud Peak Energy’s Antelope Mine. Turner has felt the full effect of the mine’s development.

Turnercrest Ranch, 60 miles south of Gillette, has been in his family since his grandfather homesteaded the area in 1918. At its peak production, the ranch totaled more than 30,000 acres of both private land and federally permitted grazing property. Today, the ranch holds 10,000 acres of mostly private land sustaining 200 cattle and more than 700 sheep.

As one of the last permit holders in the area, Turner holds the final sliver of grazing land across the fence from the mining operation. It comprises fewer than 1,000 acres and by 2018, that land is scheduled for coal production as well.

“We only have one little permit left, and what we had there is going to be gone completely,” Turner said. “When the coal companies came in here and started, they all said, ‘You will not believe how good this land will be when we get it reclaimed and turned back to you.’”

Wyoming mining companies have reclaimed a total 78,823 acres since the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality began permitting mine lands in 1975, but only 14,080 of those acres have been released for other uses like grazing, according to the Wyoming DEQ’s 2013 annual report. Mining companies are not required by law to release land they lease and usually keep property long after it passes the reclamation stage.

Cloud Peak Energy said it often holds onto land after production to quell access issues, sustain conservation, support future mining operations and as a matter of public safety.

Most mine lands are generally reclaimed in four years, but under requirements of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, the final bond can not be released until after a 10-year period, according to Rick Curtsinger, a Cloud Peak spokesman.

“Cloud Peak Energy has a long history of successful reclamation, and lands meet all functional requirements and have been demonstrated to sustain the post-mining land uses, however groundwater restoration and re-establishment of water source and re-establishment of density of sagebrush can take longer than this,” Curtsinger said.

The company currently has 900 acres awaiting approval for bond release in Wyoming and more than 7,000 acres of reclaimed land in the state.

Mining companies pay surety bonds to the Wyoming DEQ. These bonds are held much like a rental deposit to ensure that mine lands are restored as close to their original state as possible. Cloud Peak Energy, for instance, posted more than $677.5 million in outstanding surety bonds in its operations in Montana and Wyoming, according to the company’s 2013 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Once reclamation efforts are deemed adequate by the Wyoming DEQ, companies can file for the release of their bonds and get the funds returned. DEQ experts require the use of natural seed blends and the establishment of a healthy stand of vegetation for bond release to take place.

But there are no rules on when a company is released from their bond.

“Even when it does meet the criteria for reclamation, there is no requirement on our part that an operator request a bond release,” said Carol Bilbrough, Land Quality Division program manager at Wyoming DEQ. “They can retain that area as long as they choose. We don’t have a regulation that says once it is eligible the coal companies have to apply.”

DEQ, as the lead regulatory agency for mining reclamation in the state, works with the United States Forest Service and BLM to ensure cooperation among the agencies. U.S. Forest Service and BLM officials must concur with DEQ permitting decisions in the reclamation process.

Although DEQ doesn’t have the authority to force the release of reclaimed lands, the department announced a revamped process for bond release applications to make it easier on companies in the application process.

“We don’t want to be a reason why they don’t apply for bond release,” Bilbrough said. “We’re doing everything we can to make the process transparent and easy to make use of.”

Still, delays leave ranchers like Turner in a bind. He is happy to see the mine’s reclamation work, but said he has yet to see any of the reclaimed land his cattle once grazed. In the past 30 years, Turner has lost more than 6,000 acres of federally permitted grazing land to mining interests in the southern portions of Thunder Basin National Grassland. The ranch has always relied on grazing permits from the Forest Service, the federal agency that administers the grassland. As coal companies moved to the area, the Forest Service stopped renewing his permits, giving that land instead to the coal companies.

The loss of acreage has led Turner to sell his commercial cattle to maintain the health of his family’s registered red angus herd. With less land for grazing, the ranch can’t sustain a commercial herd, Turner said. Gaining access to reclaimed mine land would allow him to recoup losses while building a new commercial herd to strengthen the financial state of his operation.

“It would help out tremendously,” Turner said. “Right now, cattle are worth more than they’ve ever been, and here we’ve had to sell out our commercial cattle a couple years ago. At these prices, with 100 calves, it would be more than $100,000. That pays a lot of bills.”

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