When 45,700 acres of public land in Utah is auctioned off and the asking price is $2 per acre, energy companies tend to show up.
So, on the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 16, that's exactly what occurred, with representatives from Geoscout Land & Title Co., Turner Petroleum Land Services Inc., Liberty Petroleum Corp., Crescent Point Energy, USCorp and a dozen or so others filling a room at the Salt Palace Convention Center and dropping $314,150 on 22,771 acres.
But one on the 22-strong bidders list didn't have an LLC, Corp. or Inc. in its name. That would be Bidder No. 19—Terry Tempest Williams—whose name was tucked in between Robert Bayless Product LLC and Quinex Energy Corp.
Tempest Williams, an author known for her tales rooted in the American West and who lives part-time in Grand County, never did raise her bidding paddle. But a spacious, 800-acre patch of land that no one wanted was up for grabs after the sale. The land, about 14 miles northeast of Arches National Park, was picked up by Tempest Williams and her husband, Brooke, for around $1,200, or about $1.50 per acre.
A spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, which manages roughly 63 percent of the land in Utah and conducted the auction, says the agency is still unsure whether she'll secure her lease.
Tempest Williams has already taken steps to ensure that she and her new company, Tempest Exploration, comply with the Federal Onshore Oil & Gas Leasing Reform Act, which requires energy development to take place on leased federal land. The act provides a decade-long window for development to occur. When this development does take place, it is certain to be void of drilling rigs, waste-water containment ponds and the mud-splattered rigs that snake up and down Highway 40, delivering crude oil and gas from the Uinta Basin to refineries in North Salt Lake.
Speaking on Feb. 18 on the radio program Democracy Now!, Tempest Williams rattled off a list of wildlife that call the property home, including hawks, pronghorn and white-tailed prairie dogs. "So we're excited to explore and see what kind of energy development, including the development of the movement, can create," Tempest Williams told the show's host, Amy Goodman. "We intend on complying with the law, and we have this lease for 10 years."
The movement Tempest Williams referenced is Keep It in the Ground, which advocates for leaving oil, gas and other climate-changing fossil fuels unexploited.
Tempest Williams has also retained the services of attorney Patrick Shea, a former national BLM director, to guide her efforts to ensure she is in compliance with federal leasing laws.
If Tempest Williams' effort to secure some public land through the bidding process sounds a lot like the story of Tim DeChristopher, who was jailed for nearly two years after bidding on $1.8 million of parcels in 2008, you're right.
Shea admits there are obvious similarities. For instance, both are supporters of environmental movements that advocate for less oil and gas drilling, and both have made statements about the leasing process after being assigned a bidding paddle. But the big difference, Shea says, is that the Williamses have the money and intend to pay for their lease, while DeChristopher told BLM officials that he did not have sufficient funds to pay.
"She is going to be in compliance with the law, where Tim had no intention of being in compliance with the law," the attorney says.
Shea is confident that Tempest Williams will comply with the law, and that her new energy company will live up to its responsibility to develop energy on the parcel. "She'll have to show that she's developed it consistent with the regulations of the oil and gas leasing act," he says, noting that, while this might not be the first time in history someone has attempted to lease land in this way, it is "the first time they've had the former director of the BLM helping them understand what they need to do."
Tempest Williams' foray into energy development has occurred along a parallel line with the arrest on Feb. 10 of Cliven Bundy, who has been at odds with the BLM for more than two decades over his refusal to pay for grazing rights on public land near his Nevada ranch.
Bundy joined his sons, Ryan and Ammon, in an Oregon jail where all three have been charged with an array of crimes. Bundy's sons' offenses stem from the armed occupation of the Malheur Federal Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon.
Although the goals of the Bundy family and their supporters would seem to be at odds with the likes of Tempest Williams and other environmental groups, both appear to share a common foe: the BLM.
While Bundy and his supporters lament the cost of grazing cattle on federal lands (the costs in 2015 for a cow and a calf to graze on public land was $1.63 per month), Tempest Williams and other conservationists wonder how pristine land on the outskirts of national parks could end up on the chopping block for $2 an acre.
Utah Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, who worked for the BLM for 22 years and is a vocal critic of the agency, says that he has concerns with the Williamses' lease. If they don't develop the minerals tucked away beneath the dirt, it will prevent cash from flowing into the state in the form of royalties.
But Noel also has issues with the way the Bundy family has advanced its protests of the BLM. Importantly, Noel, himself a cattle rancher, says he doesn't agree with the contention that there should be no fees to graze cattle on public land. Grazing on private land, he says, costs him up to six times more per animal than grazing on public land. "I just think, why not pay the fee and pay your share?" he says.
For the past 13 years, Noel has brought his message to the Legislature, where he is presently running a bill that outlines a plan to manage the more than 30 million acres of public land that Utah is seeking to wrest from the federal government.
Gov. Gary Herbert and Attorney General Sean Reyes are soon expected to announce whether the state will spend an estimated $14 million to sue the feds for this land. While Noel says Herbert supports moving forward with the suit, he says the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia—a reliable conservative voice on the court—has thrown into question some of the certainty he and his legislative colleagues had about the prospects of the lawsuit.
On paper, Noel says the odds are good that the present court would be ideologically locked 4-4 on Utah's claim that federal lands should be managed by the state. An appointment by President Barack Obama, Noel says, might well make that 5-4 in favor of preserving federal management of the lands.
Whatever takes place with the lawsuit, it will have to occur amid the growing wave of noise coming from the right-wing militias supporting Bundy and conservationists who say the public lands should be just that: Public. That an author like Tempest Williams could make headlines in tandem with a gun-toting rancher like Bundy speaks to the BLM's shape-shifting job description. As set forth in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) of 1976, the agency is to manage the nation's public lands for "multiple use, sustained yield and environmental protection."
Dan McCool, a University of Utah political science professor who is also the director of the school's environmental and sustainability studies program, says the BLM's task is "extremely difficult," and that the multiple uses the BLM manages are often at odds. "You can't possibly make everybody happy all the time with that," McCool says.
While Tempest Williams and Bundy are both protesting the BLM, McCool says the two couldn't be further apart in their goals and the steps they have taken to achieve them.
Bundy and his sons, McCool says, use guns, threats of violence and fear to impose their view that public land should be returned to ranchers, locals and development interests. On the other hand, Tempest Williams, McCool says, is attempting to "prevent the land from being allocated to a very small group of people and keep it open to the public."
"What Terry and Brooke did was comply with the law. What they did at the Malheur Wildlife Preserve was to violate the law," McCool says. "I'm guessing that [Terry and Brooke] did not show up with a retinue of people carrying automatic weapons and side arms and threatening to kill people. That's another big difference. And that's an important difference."