Weld County rancher works around oil, gas drilling

Sharon Dunn | GREELEY, COLO.

The spurs jangle with each step Art Guttersen makes as he strides across the sandy ground of his ranch to the green grass growing around his home south of Kersey.

Coming in from his morning ride to doctor and move cattle, Guttersen heads straight for the pungent morning coffee he slugs straight from a thick mug as he leans on the counter in his kitchen.

Years ago he transformed this former cowboy bunkhouse — so old nobody knows just how old — into a home surrounded by shade trees forming a protective barrier from the sun. Outside, a ranch-hand takes care of the horses after the ride. Guttersen has 14 horses but rides only two. “I don’t like getting bucked off anymore,” he said.

This is a working ranch, he explains. He runs 3,000 head of cattle, most coming over from his friend Mike Cervi’s ranch, which adjoins Guttersen’s 35,000 acres to the east.

The cattle graze the grasses, while oil and gas wells dot the landscape, a marriage of uses he lauds as progressive and ranch-saving.

Cattle ranching alone is a hard way to stay afloat, he says. That’s why oil and gas is welcome on his property.

“We’re not ready to say you can have it,” Guttersen said, a nod to the oil companies’ increasing interest in the resources and space his ranch has to offer. “When oil and gas development is gone, we still have a working cattle ranch.”

When oil and gas development began on this ranch in the 1980s, he had at most 60 wells. But wells were different then. They were drilled vertically, each well claiming a certain amount of acreage, with a tank battery installed a few feet away. Evidence of the old ways dots the landscape in evenly dispersed plots per section.

Today, there are more than 500 wells on his property, bunched together in clusters so as to use the least amount of land in the most efficient space.

He prides himself on the symbiotic nature of the ranch, rolling out the red carpet for oil and gas development while maintaining the ranch lifestyle he grew up with, and which Weld water pioneer W.D. Farr wanted when he sold the ranch to Guttersen’s grandfather.

He wants his ranch to be a showpiece for how oil and gas can work together with landowners, and he thinks it is. PDC Energy is the prime oil and gas company drilling on his land now, and Guttersen likes they way it does business.

“Mixing oil and gas and cattle has been an exercise, but with our presence out here it has made all the difference,” Guttersen said. “PDC has people who enforce the rules. And word travels quick, follow the rules or you don’t come back. … It’s just like when I go to town and know there’s no cop, I’ll go 80. But if I know there’s going to be a cop, I’ll go 55.”

Visitors to the ranch are greeted with a set of rules: 25 miles per hour, no smoking, no litter and yield to cattle, to name a few. These rules are not to be broken.

“If you don’t impose standards like speed limits, it turns into a free-for-all,” he said, as he drives through the ranch on well-maintained gravel roads. “We want to roll out the red carpet, but we want to be a part of how we’re going to coexist. … If I catch a guy driving too fast and kicking up dust, I try in a nice way to say, ‘This is the cows’ home. Respect it.’ ”

Every day, he and his son, Parker, 25, take off for their morning ride to check, doctor and sometimes move cattle. He’s up and out around 6:30 a.m. — it should be earlier, he notes — and they’re back usually by mid-morning. Drilling activity by then is alive and well as areas of his ranch fill up with cars and trucks from the employees working the rigs.

From there, he goes where his gut leads him, to one of his seven businesses stemming from the foundations of ranching and oil and gas. He just gets a feeling on where he should be and goes there, be it his Greeley truck wash or Gusher Oil Field Services, a business he started specifically as oil and gas companies began drilling more on his land.

“When development started here in the ’90s, Buck Bucklen and Jerry Miller worked for companies building roads. I’d show them what we wanted,” Guttersen said. “I figured, I was out here running their people, it dawned on me to get my own equipment and do the work.”

Gusher was born, at first with just him and a couple of hired men.

“Then I started leasing trucks and equipment and started owning and started working off-site, not just on the ranch,” Guttersen said. Soon, he moved the operation to a shop in Greeley.

When the bottom fell out of the oil business during the recession, Gusher stayed alive.

“My company started when everyone else was going out of business,” Guttersen said. “So in 2008-09, I could buy a truck at half price. There was a truck sitting on every corner. I borrowed money at 0 percent at Caterpillar. When oil went to $40 a barrel, everyone left.”

There was still work to be done, however.

“Even with the drilling shutdown, there was still road maintenance; you still had to keep infrastructure going strong. We had to do the small jobs,” Guttersen said. “Gusher has over 80 people now. It’s hard to get help now. That’s the weakness. There’s so much work if you could find people.”

He still bids on all the oil field services work that accompanies drilling on his property.

A rifle for snakes and prairie dogs rides shotgun in his dually, equipped with two CB radios to communicate with ranch-hands. His phone rings often, a Clint Eastwood jingle, displaying Guttersen’s thoroughly western lifestyle. Guttersen sets out to show off his handiwork on how he has been able to coexist with a misunderstood industry.

He doesn’t have all the mineral rights to the drilling acreage that’s kept his family out of the depths of periodic downturns that have forced other ranching families to sell their assets and livelihoods through the years.

“Ranching is a rough way to make a living,” Guttersen said. “Smart cowboys want to be in the oil fields where they can work and have health insurance. Ranching is just tough. So many people think oil and gas comes out of a tap. There are ranches all over the place where people were struggling, and oil and gas came in and now they can keep the ranch in the family.”

Guttersen knows his ranch is a target for the oil and gas companies, if only because his place is so large. His range is at most 13 miles north to south and 8 miles east to west.

“With a block of land this size, sooner or later, someone’s going to want to do a project,” Guttersen said.

He gets a check when companies drill on the ground to compensate for surface use. He gets a check when companies build pipelines through his property — two were built last year to ship oil to the Plains All-American rail transloading station in the Tampa loading facility.

“There are some mineral rights here, but the big leases were signed in the ’50s and probably 10,000 acres was owned by the state and they kept the minerals,” Guttersen said. “People have the concept that we’re making all this money with all these wells and that’s not the case.”

Gusher gets to do a lot of the oil services work, so there’s that.

“We want oil companies to have their place to show they have clean facilities, and take up the least amount of land,” Guttersen said. “It is increasing. But on the other hand, Gusher gets to do the work. At least we get paid for it.”

He heads his truck down a series of dirt roads to show how drilling works on his property. All activity is consolidated much tighter than typical drilling areas, a task made easier by the horizontal drilling. And he couples pipelines and gathering points with easy access and nearby roads. “Instead of having oil trucks meander around in the early morning, this way, they just have one location to go to.”

“When all is said and done, the only disturbance will be this swath of land,” Guttersen said at one drill site. “Instead of a gas line 300 feet out and a road 200 feet the other way, if the road is close to the gas line, at least we’ll see it if something goes wrong.”

On each oil pad drill site, Guttersen trucks in enough clay to pack it into a six-inch, cement-like surface.

“When the drilling is done, we leave the clay here and revegetate it. The clay keeps seeds in the ground. It’s great for the oil guys because they have something to drive on, and for us, because we get better seeds to grow on them.”

Oil drilling on his property is favored because he knows he can’t grow anything on the sandy ground. Cattle alone can’t easily be sustained, especially without water (a problem his father remedied somewhat when he sold some stock years ago and invested in a 30-mile water line through the property tied to eight wells on the edge of the ranch).

Not even all the cattle are his.

“We’re day-herders, like a hotel,” Guttersen said. “These cattle are our guests. My brother and I started leasing the ranch in ’96. We’ve owned cattle off and on, but we don’t get rich on day-herding.”

Despite the added traffic and surface work, the land is reclaimed back to the native grasses that blow with the wind.

Guttersen said the industry has actually improved his property. The oil and gas companies came in and built roads, and maintain them. When winter comes, the oil and gas companies clear the snow off the roads.

“No, we’re not destroying the land,” he said, scoffing a bit at the question. “We have roads and pastures, fences, no litter. We feel like they’ve enhanced the ranch in a big way. When I was a kid, the only way to get around was on horseback. You can drive a Cadillac anywhere in the ranch now.”

He added: “What’s special is we are actually coexisting with the oil and gas guys. We want them to be here. They’ll come anyway. We want to get along. We just encourage them to go about their business and then we can go about our business.” ❖