Booms and Busts: A century of trying to protect a family ranch
A homemade wooden sign hangs on a wooden post right off Highway 387, about an hour south of Gillette, Wyo. Beyond the sign is a long stretch of dusty road. A couple deer stand on alert in the tall prairie grasses, and beyond them, water tanker trucks drive to a nearby fracking site. The sign’s worn letters read “Turnercrest Ranch, homesteaded by the Turner Family 1918-1919.
The Turnercrest Ranch was founded in 1918-1919 by brothers Leland and Garland and their father George Turner.
In August 2018, the Turner family had a family reunion and picnic celebration to mark 100 years of Turnercrest Ranch. Families from all over the country and beyond spread out at Turnercrest Ranch to enjoy the festivities. A century ago, LJ Turner’s family moved from Missouri to Wyoming to start ranching and farming. The West was considered a place of opportunity in the early 1900s. LJ’s great uncle and grandfather moved to the area in 1918 to homestead, just ten years before the Great Depression. They raised grain, small crops, pigs, chickens and marketed it all themselves.
In the last 100 years, the strength of the ranch and the Turner Family’s will to run the ranch have been tested. They’ve lasted through the Great Depression and a gamut of industry drilling and mining that threatens their operation even to this day.
Today, Leland Joe (LJ) Turner and his wife Karen run the Turnercrest Ranch, raising cattle for conventional markets and running seed stocks (pedigree livestock intended for breeding purposes). Their operation has changed drastically over the years.
“In the 1920s in Wyoming, anything that made a little bit of money, you wanted to be involved in,” said LJ.
The Turner family had to scrape by during the Great Depression to save the ranch. They relied on trades and bartering. The Turners traded meat for fuel and other necessities they could not produce themselves on the homestead.
The Turner family did not know it yet, but Great Depression would be the least severe threat to the ranch.
Since the early 1800s, Campbell County, Wyo. has been a key spot for people interested in minerals. The area was a big part of the Gold Rush and diamond mining phenomenon that swept across the country. The diamond and gold rushes, however, had the least lasting impact on the area.
“Practically the oldest established oil field in Wyo. is through this area right around the ranch here on Bates Creek,” said LJ pointing just west of his property.
At the turn of the century, the fields were an estate for placer claims on oil. In the US, a placer claim is granted to the discoverer of valuable minerals on public lands.
“The government eventually changed the designation of petroleum, and reverted the placer mineral claims so that the land could be leased,” said LJ.
Before the government changed the designation, homesteaders and discoverers were entitled to the oil rights and the profits that came from the oil.
“The government discovered that oil was worth some money, so they started keeping everything for a profit,” said LJ.
LJ remembers walking around the property and coming across a post marked with a placer claim from 1890.
“I thought it was a gravestone at first,” said LJ, “but upon closer inspection the dates had been burned into the post marking a placer claim.”
In the late 40s and early 50s the first deep oil wells started showing up in LJ’s area. The Salt Creek Oil field, one of the most productive oil fields, is 40 miles to the west of LJ’s property. This area is also the home to the Teapot Dome Oil Reserve, the notorious field that was secretly granted to Mammoth Oil Company from the Department of the Interior (previously taken away from the Naval Oil Reserve Lands) in 1922. LJ’s father, Leland, worked at the Teapot Dome Oil Reserve in the late 1920s to help supplement income for the ranch to survive.
Toxic chemicals and dust from drilling pollute air and waterways. LJ fears that his own water sources have been contaminated by drilling.
In addition to oil drilling in the area, near LJ’s property, there are dozens of abandoned uranium mines. Wyoming has the largest number of uranium reserves in the US.
LJ worked in the uranium mines for a couple of years in the 60s to help supplement income on the ranch.
“When the mines finally went broke, well the industry just picked up and left,” said LJ.
Today, a private company is looking to extract uranium near LJ’s property, bringing up new concerns for the Turners.
In addition to the oil and uranium industries, the coal industry has also altered the landscape and the Turner’s livelihood dramatically.
Today, coal companies throughout the nation are claiming bankruptcy at staggering rates.
LJ sees similarities between the abandonment of local uranium mines and the coal company bankruptcies today.
“The history of the uranium mines is the reason I’m cautious about endorsing coal mines, because whenever the uranium miners quit, they quit, and they just walked away and leave everything as it can be seen today — Wyoming hasn’t seen any cleanup of the property or funds to clean up the area from that industry leaving.”
Today, LJ is seeing that same disregard in how coal companies are leaving his area.
“About 100,000 acres in this county have been mined for coal,” said LJ, “about 4, 000 to 5,000 acres have been partially reclaimed, and the companies are taking bankruptcy on those, and I’m afraid the government is going to let them walk away from the reclamation on it.”
Coal companies are leaving the area destitute.
The Turner family has had standing leases with the Forest Service to graze their cattle on for decades. This year, in their 100th year ranching, the Turner family lost their last standing permit to graze cattle on forest service land so that coal companies can expand.
About 15 miles from the Turner property, the coal industry has abandoned 10,000 acres. Companies are claiming bankruptcy and say they do not have the funds to clean up or reclaim the area.
On top of the challenges posed by coal, uranium, and oil and gas over the years, coal bed methane development (natural gas found in coal deposits) and fracking have moved into the county.
“They’re using an ungodly amount of water in drilling, it’s frightening,” said LJ about the fracking development in the area. On average, 2-8 million gallons of water may be used to frack a single well.
LJ and his family used to swim and drink out of the many springs on the property. He said there were always good perch to be found in the waterways.
“It was no trout fishing, but it was a great activity for a little kid to fiddle around with growing up,” said LJ.
Fracking has impacted all of the natural flowing water in the area.
“That usage of the waterways is all gone now,” LJ said of the free-flowing water they used to have. “We’ve had to drill new wells here on the creek to supply drinkable water for the livestock where we used to have spring holes there all the time.”
LJ isn’t hopeful that the springs will come back, despite what industry heads tell him.
“The companies will tell you that the water is coming back,” said LJ, “That they can reclaim the aquifers — but they’re not doing anything, they’re just leaving them as is.”
LJ understands the cost of energy development, but he is unsure if it will be worth it in the end.
“I hate to be too critical of the industry because it helped us make a living,” said LJ, “it also helped several hundred other families make a living too, but if water is limited we’re probably going to have a lot of regret.”
The impacts to LJ’s business vary. Since surrounding industry has overtaken much of the land he once utilized for ranching, and has depleted natural water sources, LJ now runs 100 head fewer cattle because of forage and water loss. He has shifted to running seed stock.
LJ has faced many struggles working to protect his land but he’s never questioned leaving.
“This is home,” said LJ, “I’ve been here too long to think about someplace else.”