Montana outdoor enthusiasts have it pretty good. With over 32 million acres of state and federal land open to all sorts of recreational opportunities, we truly are an outdoors mecca.
Most of that public property has ample access, but some is landlocked and accessible only by obtaining permission from an adjoining landowner, or in some cases by flying or boating in.
The Montana Legislature; Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Bureau of Land Management, and other agencies have all been challenged with finding new ways to increase access to landlocked public land. Various economic incentives, like tax breaks, have been introduced to encourage landowners to allow access across their property.
But the best solution proven to work is land exchanges where a landlocked public parcel is traded to an adjoining landowner for a private parcel of roughly equal value. Land exchanges are a big win for the public due to the improved access they bring, and an equal win for the landowner trying to make their operation more efficient.
The only downside to land exchanges is their rarity due to the difficulty in identifying parcels of equal value. So when an opportunity for a land exchange does come along, it deserves a close look.
Access to Breaks
The BLM recently announced such a rare opportunity to obtain 5,252 acres that would give access to 50,000 acres of public land in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument via Bullwhacker Road. An additional easement through Powell Road would improve access to 10,000 public acres in the Big Snowy Mountains.
That would be in exchange for equal-valued, noncontiguous parcels totaling 4,868 acres of landlocked public property, a portion of which is called the Durfee Hills.
In addition to improved access, the trade is a net gain for the BLM in acreage. That’s obviously a good deal.
However, a small number of hunters currently access the landlocked Durfee Hills via aircraft, and they’d prefer to see their exclusive hunts preserved. That area is undoubtedly a great hunting opportunity if you have the means to access it, with a large elk population supported by the surrounding ranches.
They’ve argued the land in the Bullwhacker area has poorer opportunity for elk hunting. They’ve been extremely vocal in their opposition to the land exchange, even circulating a petition nationwide to get other hunters to oppose the deal.
Wilks brothers defense
Unfortunately, they’ve also resorted to personal attacks against the landowners in the deal, the Wilks brothers. As it happens, the Wilkses do allow public hunting on their ranch, with 40 area youths taking elk on their place last year and more in past years, as well as donating hunts to the Wounded Warriors project and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
What this opposition has ignored is that this land exchange isn’t just about elk — it’s about recreational opportunity for all Montanans.
Will the land exchange lead to a diminished opportunity to hunt elk? Certainly, the high-quality, fly-in-only hunting opportunity would be lost. But other opportunity will be achieved on about 60,000 acres of public land that currently does not have motorized access.
But again, land exchanges aren’t meant to benefit just one type of recreationalist. This proposed exchange is a huge net benefit to hikers, campers, birdwatchers, anglers, and on and on.
Families looking for a place for a quick day trip or weekend camp-out aren’t renting airplanes and flying in to the Durfee Hills. They would, however, be interested in driving to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument or hiking on an old logging trail in the Snowy Mountains. The Bullwhacker area is also home to one of the highest quality bighorn sheep populations in North America.
Soon, the BLM will officially open public comment on the proposal, and I’m encouraging outdoors enthusiasts with different interests to make their voices count. Don’t weigh this decision on the background of the landowners, and don’t let the histrionics of a special interest group dominate the debate. This is a proposal for all Montanans, and in fact all Americans.