The Billings Outpost

Illegal drilling spreading

By SARAH TORY - High Country News

Across the oil and gas rich plains of North Dakota and Oklahoma, more and more wells are popping up. And more and more of them use a technology called “horizontal drilling,” which allows drillers to bore sideways as well as vertically – multiplying the amount of oil or gas extracted many times over. By marrying this technique with hydraulic fracturing (shooting water, sand and chemicals into underground rock to release their energy stores), U.S. production has soared to unprecedented levels. But while that’s good news for the economy, it’s leaving regulators several steps behind.

A recent report from the Interior Department’s inspector general highlighted the problem of illegal drilling on federal lands. Sometimes oil companies, whose wells extend thousands of feet horizontally, are unaware they are penetrating federal land.

At least that’s the conclusion outlined in a report by the Office of the Inspector General, released late last month, which found that the increase in horizontal drilling means it’s easier than ever for oil and gas companies to operate – inadvertently or not – in areas for which they don’t have permission to drill. The unauthorized drilling means the government is losing out on royalty payments, and poses environmental risks.

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 November 2014 09:46

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Hot springs warm up winter day

By SHARIE PYKE - For The Outpost

In hot water up to your neck? That’s not always bad. Being submersed to the earlobes in one of Montana’s dozens of hot springs is a return to the womb.

And winter’s the best season to indulge. A step from steaming water into frosty air slaps you into a new perspective on the world.

The plethora of hot springs in this part of the Intermountain West originates in the giant lake of magma under Yellowstone Park, the largest caldera in the world. Cold surface water seeps underground via a thinner than normal crust, then pushes upward again at temperatures ranging from 68 degrees to a pressurized, scalding 400 degrees.

The line of natural hot springs marches roughly northwest from Yellowstone, through Montana, following a fault along the eastern front of the Rockies. The pools abound in Montana close to Yellowstone and then surface farther and farther apart as the fault meanders into Canada.

All natural pools, plunges and springs are the gift of Mother Nature and are eco-friendly. The smallest is more commodious than just about any fiberglass hot tub. And, since they use no wood, electricity, or fossil fuel, the bill to heat the water is a zip zilch nada. Superheated, natural water also requires no chemicals and no circulating pump. The water enters and flows out because of natural water pressure and gravity.

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 November 2014 09:41

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Park ready ‘next year’

Story and Photos - By ED KEMMICK -

Bruce Larsen and his dog, Ruki, in front of the ornamental culvert Larsen recently built in the park.A park along Five Mile Creek northeast of Billings might not be open to the public for a few more years, but striking progress has been made since work began there four years ago.

Most striking of all is a 210-foot-long suspension bridge over a coulee near the top of the park, just east of where Mary Street turns into Five Mile Road southwest of Pioneer School.

The bridge is being built for the Yellowstone River Parks Association by Blake and Bob Mackin, the father-and-son team that operates Mackin Bridge Construction. Elsewhere in the 68-acre parcel of river bottomland, they have built two fixed bridges and a shorter suspension bridge, all of them spanning Five Mile Creek just above its confluence with the Yellowstone River.

Meanwhile, YRPA volunteer Bruce Larsen recently finished work on a culvert that bridges a low section of one of the many trails he has been building throughout the park. The culvert was made with broken chunks of recycled concrete and is as much a work of art as a functional piece of infrastructure.

Asked how much research he did before starting in on the project, Larsen laughed and said, “Are you kidding? I don’t study up on anything. I just jump right in.”

He gives a similarly irreverent answer when asked when the park might be opened to the public.

“A couple years,” he said, and then adds, “We say ‘next year’ every year.”

That’s actually a good answer, because the river-bottom park is just a piece of a much larger project that is all about patience and long-term planning. The bigger project is the creation of the John H. Dover Memorial Park, a 300-acre area that will feature bike and pedestrian trails, picnic areas, fishing piers, a wetlands and possibly a disc golf course and soccer fields.

There are also plans to create an 85-acre lake. By comparison, Lake Elmo in the Heights encompasses 65 acres. And the lake at Dover Park would be 30 feet deep, meaning there would be fish in it year-round.

“It’s astounding,” Larsen said of the park. “And I think Billings is ready for it.”

The whole thing was conceived by Jim Sindelar as a way of honoring his pioneer grandfather, John H. Dover. Starting almost 20 years ago, Sindelar began turning over title to various parcels of his farm land to the YRPA, a nonprofit organization whose main purpose is building trails along the Yellowstone River.

Some of the land was part of the original Dover farm, but Sindelar bought much of it decades ago, both on the bench above his grandfather’s riverfront farm and along Five Mile Creek, all in hopes of preserving it from development.

Much of the property, more than 200 acres, is under lease to the Knife River Corp., which mines gravel there. Development on the main part of the Dover Park, including the lake, won’t begin for years, until gravel-mining operations come to an end.

Another contribution from Sindelar was his decision to have Knife River deposit a portion of its lease payments into an account that has been used by the YRPA to start development along the Five Mile Creek property.

Larsen and other volunteers have constructed multiple trails, some of mown grass and some of crushed limestone, throughout the bottomland. Larsen plans to put a layer of crushed limestone over the culvert, and he might try to grow moss on the concrete, to make it blend in with the landscape. He has been told you could get moss to grow if you first sprayed the culvert with either buttermilk or beer.

He’s leaning toward buttermilk. “I don’t know if I could waste the beer,” he said.

In addition to the trails and bridges, volunteers have also planted more than 100 trees donated by the Gainan’s store in the Heights. The trees were donated after they were damaged by hailstorms this summer, but most of them have survived transplanting near Five Mile Creek. The total value of the donation came to about $55,000, Larsen said.

Volunteers planted 80 aspen and maple trees and 40 fruit trees, as well as lot of sage and 30 grape vines. Volunteer Alan Parker painstakingly directed water from an irrigation ditch into mini-channels that water all of the trees and plants. Irrigation water is also being used to bring life back to some towering cottonwoods that had been without water so long they looked dead.

Sindelar has had health problems and has been living in a nursing home. It had been a couple of years since he’d seen the old home place when, last Friday, the YRPA arranged to give him a tour of the Five Mile Creek area.

Sindelar, 82, is unable to walk, so Larsen, driving a Lincoln Navigator donated for the day by Bob Smith Motors, took him for a driving tour of the area. They were joined by Sindelar’s wife, Ginnie, and two daughters.

One of his daughters, Donnette Roberts, said her father doesn’t talk much, but he kept saying how much he liked the bridges and how much he appreciated the views of the river and the fall-tinted trees.

“It was so cool that YRPA was able to do that for my dad,” she said.

For her part, Roberts was impressed with Larsen’s recently completed culvert. “Oh, my gosh, that is fantastic,” she said. “That guy is just obsessed with Dover Park.”

For now, the Five Mile Creek area of the park is posted no trespassing, and the gate to what will be the parking area is locked. Larsen said the area will be opened to the public when it is considered safe and enough trails are completed.

It’s harder to say when work will begin on the larger park because it’s unclear how long gravel-mining operations will continue there. But a master plan, drawn up by Stacey Robinson with Land Design Inc., has been done for years and will guide development.

Also unknown is exactly how plans for the so-called Billings bypass will affect the park. The Montana Department of Transportation has been planning the project for years, and in August published a “record of decision” on the project, clearing the way for right-of-way acquisition and final design.

The bypass would provide a link across the Yellowstone River between Interstate 90 and Old Highway 312 in the Heights. The 5-mile-long connector would run near Johnson Lane in Lockwood, cross the Yellowstone virtually in the middle of Dover Park and continue down Mary Street to Highway 312.

The span would be the first new bridge crossing of the Yellowstone River since 1978, when the interstate was being constructed. Larsen said the YRPA has been working with the Billings office of the Department of Transportation, looking for ways to lessen the project’s impact on Dover Park.

He said the YRPA’s main suggestion was to build the bridge roadway below grade. If you can get wheels and axles below grade, Larsen, said, you can cut vehicle noise in half. He said the MDT has also agreed to accommodate any park trails and bridges in its design of the bypass.

Last Updated on Friday, 07 November 2014 11:43

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Montana return thwarted


Les Gapay after an assault cost him his right eye.Novelist Thomas Wolfe might have been right when he wrote “you can’t go home again” in 1940 in a book with that phrase for the title.

I found that out firsthand this past summer when I tried to move from California back to the Montana of my youth. I discovered the state, although still beautiful, was not the idyllic place where I grew up and also later raised my children. It had changed and grown and crime increased. Not only was the atmosphere not the same, but I was a victim of the increased crime of its growing cities.

I was permanently blinded in one eye during a beating in late August in a Walmart parking lot in Missoula, once a sleepy, pleasant university town where I started my journalism career decades ago. I typed the first draft of this piece on my cellphone while recuperating from eye surgery and hospitalization in a motel room in Missoula and completed it after I returned to California to live and for further eye care.

Last Updated on Thursday, 06 November 2014 11:20

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