Several Stillwater County citizens have filed a lawsuit to try to force Stillwater County to act on their efforts to create a citizen initiated zoning district. They want to mitigate any impacts on their property, the environment, and to the local infrastructure if oil and gas drilling takes place along the Beartooth Front.
Burt Williams of Fishtail says a group of residents became concerned in 2013 when a Denver-based oil company announced it was opening a regional office in Billings to develop its leases near the Beartooth Mountains and the Big Horn Basin.
“Our intent in forming a citizen initiated zone was to establish some regulations for the possibility of fracking, hydraulic fracturing on the Beartooth Front to develop oil and gas,” says Williams.
His family’s ranch is on the edge of the Dean Dome. Williams wants to make sure the ranch operations are not disrupted by any future drilling, insisting the residents aren’t trying to prevent development.
“We want it to be a reasonable set of regulations that protects water quality, air quality and some of the basic items of environment,” he says. “As well as trying to figure out how we would replace infrastructure if it would start falling apart from all of the truck traffic and equipment traffic associated with oil and gas development.”
In 2013, Energy Corporation of America opened an office in Billings and said hydraulic fracturing has made it economically possible to tap reserves where the company has leases around the Beartooths in the Roscoe and Dean areas, as well as Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone in the Big Horn Basin.
Williams says the residents didn’t set out to sue the county. He says since 2014 residents have been trying to work with the Stillwater County Commission and other officials but have been turned down by commissioners at every possible juncture.
“When we asked for advice, when we tried to get them to count the signatures, and finally because they decided to involve mineral rights in something that has never happened before with a citizen initiated zone in Montana,” he says.
In the later, the Stillwater County Attorney sought an Attorney General’s opinion last September on whether “mineral right owners” are “real property owners.”
Last November, the Attorney General’s office sent a letter declining the request, in large part, because it appeared litigation is likely in this matter.
The lawsuit was filed February 23, 2018 in state District Court by the Beartooth Front Coalition and several landowners. The defendants are the Stillwater Board of County Commissioners and Stillwater County Clerk and Recorder Heidi Stadel. The attorney for the plaintiffs is David K.W. Wilson of Morrison Sherwood Wilson & Deola in Helena.
Zoning is not a new concept in Stillwater County where the major employer in the Stillwater Mine at Nye.
“It’s not unusual to be working with a mineral extractor or an oil extractor to come up with ways to address problems that might arise,” says Bill Hand of Nye.
Hand, a named plaintiff in the lawsuit, says he moved to Nye for the beauty of the area. He says his property sits near the Dean Dome where geologic maps have indicated there’s oil bearing rock beneath his land.
A call to Stillwater County for comment was not immediately returned.