Ag perspectives: Douglas attorney helps landowners with energy issuesWritten by Christy Martinez
As she grew up on ranches in the Big Horn Basin, Heather says she watched her parents and other ranchers try to communicate with lawyers in what looked like different languages. That’s what led her to be an ag lawyer who now works with ranchers on an everyday basis.
“My parents had to use a couple attorneys growing up, and I could always tell they didn’t understand ag and ranching, and couldn’t do an effective job,” says Heather. “I think that, to be an effective lawyer in most ag issues, you have to have a full understanding of ranching, and particularly in what I do now.”
Having lived with her family at Cowley, Jeffery City and Bill, Heather says she feels like she’s lived in every back-road area of Wyoming.
Today, Heather’s time is occupied with oil and gas leasing in Converse County, along with some uranium contracts.
“I do general ag law, which is more of a specialization in the type of client rather than the type of law,” explains Heather. “I do everything from estate planning to LLCs to real estate contracts and grazing leases. Being located in Douglas right now, 90 percent of my work deals with large mineral development companies, negotiating surface use agreements, oil and gas leases and those kinds of things.”
With a master’s in ag economics combined with her ag background, Heather says her move to Douglas in the midst of coalbed methane development was the perfect fit at the perfect time.
“I took over an existing practice, and at this point a small percentage of my client base I inherited from the existing firm. Most of my clients found me by word-of-mouth, and when people understand I have an ag background they feel more comfortable,” she says.
“I jumped in, and it did take some learning, and that learning curve continues because we always have new issues that keep coming up that we have to address,” she says.
The latest new issue is horizontal drilling.
“Previously we’d never seen horizontal drilling in Converse County, or multiple well bores on the same site,” she says. “I’ve been dealing with those, and the biggest deal is the sheer volume we’re seeing now in the amount of development that’s going on. We’re busier than we’ve ever been, and we thought we were busy before the boom started.”
Heather says her office focuses on addressing her clients’ individual concerns, while still efficiently negotiating agreements in a timely manner.
“I negotiate with ‘the dark side,’ which is oil companies, generally, although here in Converse County it could also be a wind company, uranium, a powerline, pipeline or coalbed methane,” she states. “Our goals are to minimize the damage to each rancher’s operation as much as possible, while maximizing the amount of money they get out of it.”
As of last Oct. 1, Heather has been practicing in Douglas for nine years, and she says she’d like to hire another attorney.
“It’s really hard to find the right attorney who wants to live in a small town. They don’t think there’s the glamour of practicing in a larger town, and they mistakenly believe there’s not as much money to be made as a small-town practitioner,” she explains. “We would love to find additional help from someone who has an ag background and wants to work in a small town.”
Of how her ranch background has helped her in the ag law realm, Heather says it’s not the operational knowledge that’s her greatest asset, but her lack of fear of hard work.
“That is the single biggest thing – not being afraid to put in the long hours to get the job done,” says Heather. “Second is that you understand the issues. There’s a cost savings to your clients, because they feel comfortable that they don’t have to read and understand every word of the agreement, so they’re free to focus on their operations.”
She gives as an example seismic activity in a certain pasture during lambing season.
“The clients feel comfortable I can spot these things, and they don’t have to worry about reading the agreement,” she says.
Heather also works on uranium contracts – she’s one of the few attorneys in the United States who represents landowners in uranium issues.
“Because one of my clients has the largest in situ uranium mine in the United States on their place, I do quite a bit of uranium,” she says. “The rules are already written in oil and gas development, and we only have so much negotiation power, because the groundwork is already in place. With uranium, when it started again three or four years ago there hadn’t been any leasing for 30 years, so we got to rewrite some of the rules. In a lot of ways the agreements became more favorable to my clients, because we could disregard how things had always been done because it had been 30 years.”
Of energy development in Converse County, Heather says she still sees activity climbing.
“I think the reason it’s still climbing is because the BLM is so far behind on approving permits. I have a stack of 40 surface use agreements waiting for me on my desk, so I tend to disagree with the articles that claim it’s more of a rumored boom rather than an actual boom,” she notes.