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  May/June 2006
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Profile: Family Values
A rancher and her children take on Big Energy
By Michelle Nijhuis

Years ago, Bernadette Clairon left Cambodia for a Wyoming rancher and a new way of life. Now gas-drilling rigs are moving toward her adopted home in the Powder River Basin.
Winter in Wyoming can be a relentless season, a time of frostbite and black ice and dizzying whiteouts. But even on a snowy, blustery Sunday in December, the Barlow Ranch feels sheltered, with its cluster of buildings tucked under the line of bluffs called the Powder River Breaks. Lewis Barlow homesteaded this slice of northeastern Wyoming in the 1920s, and the log cabin he built still forms part of the two-story family ranch house. Bare-limbed cottonwoods gather around the home, and in the yard stands a tiny stucco building that served for several years as a schoolhouse for Barlow's children.

His daughter-in-law Bernie Barlow calls the place "heaven on earth" and can't imagine living anywhere else. Not some 30 miles down the highway in the nearest town of Gillette; not in Paris, where two of her siblings are; not in India, where her father was raised; and not in Cambodia, where Bernie lived until her early 20s. The Barlow Ranch is the place Bernie calls home, the place that inspires her work to protect the wide-open landscape beyond its borders.

"The people who came before me took care of this land," she says, her French accent giving the words a throaty emphasis. "My father-in-law handed us something very valuable--the land, the water, the air, a wonderful place to raise a family. I don't want to see all that just go--go to heck."

This is more than idle talk. Bernie helps lead a feisty local conservation group, and her words are an essential part of the Barlow family creed. The Barlow Ranch sits on the western edge of the Powder River Basin, not far from where the eastern corners of Wyoming and Montana meet. The basin, which covers an area about three times the size of Massachusetts, is rich in coal, oil, and natural gas, and the Barlows have watched the region boom, bust, and boom again. The most recent energy boom, which began in the late 1990s, has brought sudden wealth to some people. But it has also destroyed ranch lands and homes and polluted the region's air and water. Its momentum so far unbroken, the boom is rolling toward the doorstep of the Barlow Ranch.

BERNIE BARLOW was born Bernadette Clairon, a city girl. Her mother, a native of northern France, and her father, a lawyer who grew up in southern India, moved to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in the 1920s, during the decades of French colonial rule. Bernadette received a rigorous education at French-run schools, eventually entering law school at the Cambodian branch of the University of Paris. If she thought about Wyoming at all, it must have seemed as far away as Pluto.

But Wyoming, in the form of a young rancher named Bill Barlow, showed up in Phnom Penh in 1960. Bill had spent some time in Burma as part of a 4-H college exchange program, and after graduation he returned to Southeast Asia to work with farmers to improve the productivity of their water buffalo herds. He met Bernadette at a party in Phnom Penh, and after he moved back to Wyoming in late 1962, the couple remained in close touch. The following May, just after Bernadette completed her law degree, she got her first look at Wyoming.

On the ranch, Bernie and I crunch through fresh snow, climbing a modest rise for a view of the western horizon. Bernie has wrapped her petite frame in heavy blue-gray coveralls and topped her short black hair with a stocking cap; it is so cold that bare fingers stiffen in moments. A small cluster of pronghorn picks its way across our path, pausing to inspect us before moving on through the snowy clumps of sagebrush and pale, sere grass.

As the sun breaks through the storm clouds, Bernie points to the open land before us and to the distant, ragged outline of the Bighorn Mountains. She grew up near the broad Mekong River, where city streets were lined with mango trees and parks were filled with tropical flowers; Wyoming, by comparison, looked bone-dry and monochrome. Today, however, the view of the ranch and mountains is familiar and beloved. "This is a little sacred area," she says, gesturing at a rocky point on a nearby slope. When Bill died in 2001, the family scattered his ashes here, and Bernie has instructed her children to do the same for her.

Eight days after Bernie first arrived at the Barlow Ranch, she and Bill got married, causing consternation in both their families. Her family didn't want her to move so far away; his doubted she'd want to stay. The newlyweds spent about a year in Moorcroft, Wyoming, where Bill taught school, then moved to the ranch. By that time, it was clear that Bernie wasn't going to be scared away by a Wyoming winter, and her in-laws set aside their skepticism and accepted her wholeheartedly.

The in-laws soon moved to nearby Gillette, but Lewis Barlow worked at the 18,000-acre ranch with his son and daughter-in-law almost every day until his death in 1983. Bernie, who began helping to milk cows, raise chickens, and mend fences, laughs as she remembers her husband's sink-or-swim riding instructions. "He just put me in the saddle and said, 'If you want to go faster, kick him in the flanks.'" Bill and Bernie also began raising a son, Eric, and daughters Michele and Nicole.

One could say that Bernadette Clairon made an astounding detour into a forbidding land. But Bernie Barlow doesn't see her life in such dramatic terms. After all, she'd heard stories from her parents of their early days in Southeast Asia, and life on a Wyoming ranch was luxurious by comparison. "I had all the conveniences--electricity and water--and I had the best parents-in-law you could possibly have," she says. "So I was blessed."

AS THE BARLOWS tended their ranch and family in the late 1960s, the Vietnam War escalated. The couple followed events closely but stayed out of the political fray. "We weren't among the protesters," Bernie says. "We figured that if [the war] was wrong, it would be stopped." But before long, she says, "we realized we were totally misled."

Bill decided that if the U.S. government could mislead the country into war, it couldn't be counted on to protect his home state. In the 1970s, northeastern Wyoming witnessed an enormous coal boom, with Gillette at the epicenter, and landowners feared the largely unregulated stripmining would destroy their property, air, water, and quality of life.

"We weren't personally impacted, since the coal mines are 50 miles from us," says Bernie. "But still, it was Wyoming, and Bill didn't want to see the land he loved destroyed for the quick buck. He just thought, 'Man, I'm not going to sit on my hands and do nothing.'"

One evening in 1973, Bill and several of his neighbors gathered at a local barn, where they formed the Powder River Basin Resource Council. They envisioned an organization that would protect the basin from the ravages of stripmining and fight for the survival of family ranches and farms. "We never said, 'Don't do it,'" Bernie explains. "We just said, 'Do it responsibly.'"

The new group lobbied at the state and federal levels for tougher protections for landowners and the environment. Bernie usually remained in the background, especially when her children were small, but she was always interested in the council's battles. She and Bill took a succession of young staffers under their wings, sharing so many meals and holidays with them that they almost became part of the family. "I remember a lot of guests and a lot of talk about political and environmental matters over the kitchen table," says Bernie's daughter Michele. "I grew up assuming that everyone thought about these things."

In 1977, the group celebrated passage of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which established a system for mine permitting and required--for the first time--that prime ranch and farmland be restored after mining ceases. But a challenge just as great lay ahead. In the 1990s, as the price of natural gas began its dramatic rise, energy companies started plying the Rocky Mountains for coalbed methane, a form of natural gas found in shallow, underground coal seams. Because drilling for coalbed methane uses relatively lightweight, inexpensive equipment, it is cheaper than drilling for conventional natural gas. The promise of quick riches lured companies to the coalfields of northeastern Wyoming, and the Powder River Basin is now pockmarked with nearly 20,000 of these gas wells, with as many as 50,000 more expected in the next 20 years.

In the early 1900s, when the federal government granted land to homesteaders, it retained ownership of the underlying coal, oil, and minerals. Today it can sell or lease those resources to industry for development. Those who own the surface property can negotiate with energy companies for some conditions and compensation, but they have no power to stop the drilling on their land. If a rancher refuses access, the company can, in most cases, post a bond with the government for reclamation and press forward with the development.

As the coalbed-methane industry boomed, landowners' horror stories multiplied. Hundreds of properties in the basin were crisscrossed with roads, pipelines, and power lines or dotted with wellheads and noisy compressor stations. "Where there used to be five vehicles a day on some of our roads, now there are hundreds," says Bernie. "The impact is amazing."

Then there were the floods. Coalbed methane is held in coal seams by water, which must be pumped to the surface to release the gas. Some wells can produce more than 100,000 gallons a day. In Wyoming, this often brackish water is usually dumped into reservoirs, which can overflow into creeks, damaging fisheries, eroding soil, and destroying hay meadows and native vegetation. The frenzied pumping of groundwater has also threatened natural springs and domestic wells. For Bill and Bernie, the waste was painful to witness.

The Powder River Basin Resource Council soon brought national attention to the plight of ranchers and other landowners in the area. "I don't know where people get these ideas of Westerners as gun-toting, hard-driving people," says Jill Morrison, an organizer for the council. "Most are very soft-spoken but have a firm dedication to the resources they're trying to steward--and that's how Bill was."

In the spring of 2001, at the age of 64, Bill died of an aneurysm. His memorial service included the poetry of Wendell Berry: We clasp the hands of those that go before us / And the hands of those who come after us.

BERNIE'S SON, ERIC, recently moved back to the family ranch and built a house of his own, where he lives with his wife and two children. He's taken over the day-to-day management of the place, but Bernie isn't ready to retire. She finished a term as chair of the Powder River Basin Resource Council last year and is still on the board. In recent months, she's spoken to tribes in the region about the impacts of coalbed methane on the basin. She's an active ambassador for the council, bringing in new leaders and helping the group keep its roots in the ranching community.

Back at the Barlow Ranch, gas companies hold leases to about 15,000 acres of mineral rights. Under current well-spacing rules, that could bring more than 180 wells and their associated infrastructure. Development upstream has already flooded some seasonal creeks on the ranch, drowning the streamside vegetation so important to livestock and wildlife, and other projects planned in the same area could worsen the situation.

Bernie and Eric spend long hours writing letters, driving hundreds of miles to meetings, and sitting through state and federal hearings. Both have traveled to the Wyoming statehouse and Washington, D.C., to lobby for surface-landowner protections against the devastating effects of gas development. In February 2005, they and fellow members of the Powder River Basin Resource Council celebrated the passage of a bill to help surface landowners, the Wyoming "split-estate" statute. While the recent state law is a compromise, it does bolster notification and negotiation requirements for companies that want to drill on private land.

Daughter Michele, now on the staff of an environmental group called the Wyoming Outdoor Council, says she learned some useful tactics from her mother. "She's always told me to never give up," Michele says. "If there's a meeting with regulators, with industry, or with the governor, she wants to be there. She doesn't want someone else's interpretation of what happened."

It's not always easy to find Bernie now. If she's not sitting in the front row at a Powder River Basin Resource Council meeting, she might be traveling to New York on council business or helping friends lead a pack trip into the Wind River Mountains of western Wyoming. She could be visiting her family in Paris or exploring her father's hometown in southern India. But she always returns home to the Powder River Basin. "Here there's a feeling that you belong to the land, that you belong to something," she says. "And if you take care of the land and nourish the cattle and wildlife, it will all be around for a long time to come."

Michelle Nijhuis is a freelance writer in western Colorado.

Photo by Steven G. Smith; used with permission.

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