The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
"The Trespassers: Drilling in the Wilderness"
A Season of Spoils: The Story of the Reagan Administration's Attack on the Environment Jonathan Lash, Katherine Gillman & David Sheridan (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984)
Interior Secretary James G. Watt

Bob Burnett was hunting quail that morning. He had crossed a mesa and was standing at its rim looking north when, about a mile away, he saw them -- a drill rig, a Cat (bulldozer), a water truck, and a vehicle used for hauling bulldozers called a lowboy. They definitely were on the national wildlife refuge. But what really bothered him was whether they were on the land within the refuge which had been designated wilderness by the United States Congress. He just was not sure.

That question nagged at Burnett like a chigger bite for the rest of the day (November 1, 1982). After bagging his limit of quail, he returned to his home in Roswell that afternoon. The first thing he did was pull out his maps. Yes, by God, they were on the wilderness, where they had no business being.

Bob Burnett wasted no time. He first called the local office of the Fish and Wildlife Service -- the federal agency responsible for looking after the refuge and the wilderness. Did they know there was a fully-equipped oil-gas crew out on the Salt Creek Wilderness? No. Had they issued a permit allowing road-building and oil and gas development in the wilderness? No. Next, he called the local office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Had they given an oil-gas crew a right-of-way to the wilderness? No. Then Burnett alerted some of his fellow conservationists. Before nightfall, word had spread of the intrusion into the wilderness to members of the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Audubon Society, and Earth First in the Southwest.

The next day, November 3, was an eventful one. Burnett went out to the wilderness to see for himself what was happening and to talk to the foreman of the oil-gas crew. He learned that the trespasser was Yates Petroleum Corporation. [T]he drilling had begun. When Burnett returned to Roswell, he called the Fish and Wildlife Service and the BLM to find out what they planned to do about the Yates trespass. He was informed that they had issued trespass citations to Yates.

Yates stopped working for about an hour -- apparently to consult with their lawyers, and then took up where they had left off. When Burnett and other conservationists learned that Yates had resumed operations, they were back on the phone with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the BLM inquiring what they were going to do next. But now they were informed that the local offices of these federal agencies had been ordered by Washington not to comment further on the incident and to refer all calls to their Albuquerque offices. The bureaucratic runaround had begun.

Bob Burnett notes: "The local BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service people were scared. They didn't want to lose their jobs. Hell, you can't blame them. They knew which side their superiors at the Department of the Interior were on -- Yates's."

Since the government was taking no immediate action to stop Yates, the conservationists decided they would try. They checked with the Fish and Wildlife Service and found that it would be legal for them to camp on the road that Yates had bladed across the wilderness. So the morning of November 7, that is what they did. They also alerted the media. All day long, the Yates foreman, Mike Slater, had assured Burnett there would be no violence. But then a lowboy carrying a bulldozer appeared on the scene. Ed Burns, a retired civil servant from Las Cruces, who was one of the conservationists on the scene, describes what happened next:

"Now the bulldozer was brought up to the cattleguard. The scene was brilliantly lit by the headlights of the vehicles and the spotlights of the TV crews . . . Slater confronted me. 'You've done your bit for God and country,' he said. Now he warned us to get out of the way or we would get hurt. The bulldozer was coming through and the driver was not going to stop for anything.

"In a ringing voice Slater shouted, 'Go.' The dozer moved forward. Employees poised for the purpose yanked up the tents and threw them into the ditch. John Colburn, who had been sitting on a foam pad, did not move quickly enough. . . . Slater seized John, wrestled him to the side of the road, then claimed credit for saving his life. Then the convoy roared through."

Millions of Americans watched it all on the evening news.

The Yates trespass generated so much public interest that, on November 10, Bob Burnett, as one of the chief protagonists in the case, found himself in Washington, DC, testifying before the United States Congress for the first time in his life. Burnett hardly fits the image of the "left-wing environmental elitist" portrayed by Secretary of the Interior James Watt. He was born on a ranch in west Texas. Burnett works for himself -- he installs and services pumps. In 1980 he voted for Ronald Reagan. But his congressional testimony reflected the profound frustration of conservationists with the Reagan Administration.

No one from Yates appeared at the hearing, but the company did present written testimony which was illuminating.

When the federal government in the late 1940s acquired the land for the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge from private owners and the State of New Mexico, the state retained its mineral rights. In 1972, the state issued an oil-gas lease to Yates for the site that is now designated wilderness. Under the terms of the lease, Yates had to drill sometime before midnight, November 1, 1982, or its lease would expire. In early September of 1982, the State of New Mexico, responding to Yates's request, issued the company a permit to drill. Yates then applied to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a right-of-way and surface occupancy permit.

At this juncture, the Department of the Interior had at least two options open to it for protecting the wilderness. It could have acquired Yates's lease outright, or it could have made a trade, giving Yates a comparable oil-gas lease on non-wilderness public land in return for this one. The Department of Interior did neither. One option the Department did not have was to issue the permits Yates sought. The Congress had prohibited expenditures to process permits or leases for energy development on wilderness areas. The Congress had passed this unusual measure because the previous year Secretary Watt had approved oil-gas leases for the Capitan Wilderness in New Mexico. The leases had been issued before an environmental assessment was done and without any public notice. The Wilderness Act of 1964 allows oil and gas leasing on the National Wilderness Preservation System until the end of 1983, but it does not require leasing. In fact, no Secretary of the Interior since the act was passed had adopted a policy of issuing oil and gas leases on wilderness lands. Oil and gas development was considered incompatible with wilderness values.

One week after Bob Burnett told federal officials that Yates was trespassing, federal lawyers obtained a temporary restraining order against Yates. Yates immediately appealed but had to cease operations on the wilderness pending the decision of the appeals court. By that time, however, Yates was already well over halfway done, having drilled some 2,800 feet.

In late December, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the BLM issued Yates the necessary permits. It was done without fanfare. There was no press release. Under their own regulations, the BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service are not supposed to issue right-of-way or occupancy permits to someone like Yates, who has an outstanding trespass, but they did anyway, on orders from the Secretary's office.

Yates resumed operations in January, drilling another 1,400 feet. On February 7, 1983, Yates capped the gas well it had found and vacated the wilderness site.

The trespassers are gone now from the Salt Creek Wilderness, and the damage is done, but questions remain regarding the Department of the Interior's handling of the case. Why didn't Interior buy out Yates's lease or exchange it for another on non-wilderness public land? After Yates ignored the trespass citations issued on November 3, why didn't federal agents simply escort the Yates crew off the wilderness? Why did Interior issue Yates the necessary permits when Yates had outstanding trespass violations against it?

Bob Burnett thinks he has the answer to all of these questions.

He thinks the Administration acted as it did or failed to act for ideological reasons. "Ever since the Reagan Administration came to office, they have tried their darnedest to 'open up' the wilderness system for oil and gas development, and every time the Congress or the courts have gotten in their way. They saw this case as an opportunity to set a precedent establishing the rights of an existing lessee to drill in the wilderness. They did it for the principle of the thing. Of course it backfired on them real bad."

Other interpretations are of course possible. This one comes from a career employee inside the Department of the Interior. "Once Yates acted, the Reagan appointees were forced to do something, especially after it got on television and Congress got stirred up. Their hearts weren't in it, though. These, after all, weren't welfare chiselers they were dealing with. So they fumbled around with the case until the heat was off; then they quietly handed Yates the permits they wanted and gave them a little slap on the wrist."

Despite the fact that Yates seems to have gotten away with trespass, Burnett comes away from the whole episode not one bit discouraged, even though his involvement in it has cost him business out in the oil fields. "The oil and gas industry may have won the battle, but the conservationists won the war. Now, even Watt is talking about no oil and gas development in the wilderness system."