By Carrie Haderlie
SHERIDAN — Canoes, small drift boats and kayaks will soon have an easier entry point into the Tongue River north of Sheridan.
Ramaco Carbon is sponsoring the construction of a new boat ramp at the Kleenburn Recreation Area. The addition will be a permanent fixture at the publicly-accessible Kleenburn site 10 miles north of Sheridan near Acme, and was approved in mid-July by the Sheridan Board of County Commissioners.
“In the past, it has been difficult to launch small watercraft in the river … without a ramp,” Dayton Mayor Norm Anderson said. “This is a great addition to the Kleenburn Recreation Area, (which) Sheridan County has set aside for public access.”
Ramaco had hoped to expand public access to the Tongue River after the Sheridan Board of County Commissioners approved a zoning change to light industrial of Ramaco property located near the Kleenburn Recreation area last spring, Ramaco Carbon attorney Tony Wendtland said.
According to Sheridan County Engineer Ken Muller, the county installed bathrooms and a parking lot at Kleenburn several years ago. Ramaco approached him about expanding access on site, he said.
“They thought this site would be the best, considering the topography and also that we already have public access and parking on site,” Muller said. “It just kind of worked. This will make it much easier to use the river. There was no good river access in the Kleenburn Recreation Area, and this provides that.”
Project volunteer Jason Scwez said everything but the hydrological studies has been donated. Casey Osborn with EMIT Technologies has donated time to move concrete railroad ties, which will become steps to the ramp, donated by the BNSF.
“We’ve hauled them over there, and now it’s just a scheduling thing to get heavy equipment over there to dig, with the hydrologist on site,” Scwez said.
Blaine Phillips with Tongue River Stone donated the rock fill that will go on each side of the recycled steps, he added.
“Six years ago, (we didn’t) have a county park. I think that was my vision six years ago, and I would even like to get a trail from town out there. To improve that access without using the county’s dollars is all the better,” Scwez said. “Not only is this important for river access, but if we improve this stuff it will also be better for tourism in the area.”
Wendtland said that with Army Corps of Engineers approval, construction began this month, and will be complete by mid-September.
“We need to get this built by Sept. 15. (After that) there is a restriction from the Corps on excavating that bank and filling it because of brown trout spawning,” Wendtland said.
Ramaco paid to design the project in a manner acceptable to Sheridan County, and went through numerous public meetings on the plan, according to Wendtland.
Since 2017, Ramaco Carbon has been working to build a coal-to-carbon research facility on its property north of Sheridan. Ramaco leadership says the project will have lasting impacts on the local economy and the coal industry.
But the project has garnered criticism from some neighbors, as well as groups like the Powder River Basin Resource Council, who say there isn’t enough coal in the area or that not enough environmental protections are in place.
Wendtland says that with its new boat ramp, Ramaco will improve access in an area where there historically was none.
“We’ve heard that we would somehow harm recreation or access on the Tongue River,” Wendtland said, adding that other than the county-owned Kleenburn Recreation Area and one temporary unimproved river access, there is no existing access in the area.
“The reason is because the landowners in the area … have not granted the public access to the river in the area,” Wendtland said. “We didn’t believe it was a fair criticism to say we would harm access that didn’t exist there anyway, but we were open to carefully, in a consistent way that was safe, to try to improve (access) to show that (no access) was the last thing that we want to see happen.
“We are thrilled that people are there,” Wendtland said.
In a recent letter to the editor to The Sheridan Press, Ranchester resident Bill Bensel said that “much has been made recently of a boat access ramp to be donated by Ramaco as part of their façade of neighborliness.”
“What of the promised public park and a new boat access to be located on the Ramaco property that would serve a growing number of kayakers and fishermen?” Bensel asked. “Instead, the company proposes a boat ramp downstream at the county-owned Kleenburn rec area that already has river access, parking lot, and other established public facilities. Ramaco is going so far as to seek others to help defray upfront costs and the long term maintenance for this ramp, resulting in little investment put forth by this ‘promising’ company.”
Bensel was not available for a Sheridan Press interview by deadline.
On Aug. 7, nine county residents also asked the county commissioners to reverse the March decision to rezone property north of the city from agricultural to industrial. The March decision will allow Ramaco Carbon to move forward with plans to build its manufacturing and research facilities on its land.
The residents were mainly members of the Powder River Basin Resource Council and landowners near the Ramaco property.
Wendtland explained that changing that zoning designation may not be legal.
“We went through an entire zoning process that took from about late December through March, where all these issues were hashed out with the county commission publicly. Both sides got to express their concerns about all of these things,” Wendtland said.
“We addressed them all publicly, accurately and sat by and listened to people criticize us sometimes unfairly. We honored the process, and at the end of the day, the property was rezoned light industrial … 3-2. That is the law now based on the zoning map,” Wendtland said. “My bigger concern is that this is part of a larger effort by some people who are just philosophically opposed to any coal mining anywhere forever to put another twist on the anti-Ramaco efforts to legitimately use its own property.”
Ramaco media contact Liz Brimmer said she has worked with other conservation groups across the country on projects similar to the boat ramp addition at Kleenburn.
“These are good, good projects, when people donate the resources and land to improve our waterways,” she said.
Ramaco looked at its property along the Tongue River, talked to adjacent landowners, consulted with a hydrological engineer, applied for its Army Corps of Engineers permit and talked to the Sheridan Community Land Trust before settling on the location for the boat ramp.
“Why is this a good place? Several obvious and logical reasons,” Wendtland said.
One is that it is already public, so Ramaco’s improvements will remain public in perpetuity. Secondly, the ramp will be in a location that will allow for a relatively small watercraft access with a step, railing and boat launch that does not require users to drop their vessels off the river bank.
“The third reason to put it there is that it makes sense to put it there next to an existing parking area and toilet in the recreation area. All of that was put there by the county in the first place because it was the least disruptive to the neighborhood … and it is away from the railroad tracks,” Wendtland said.
Most of the riverfront Ramaco property is not as easily accessible, he said.
“It’s either too steep and rocky, or it is too close to the railroad tracks,” Wendtland said. “Or, it is to close to where the research campus would go, in a place that is hard to secure in case there are things in the research campus that need security. There would not be room to put in an access and parking, and keep our front gate secure.”