Some Montana advocates of public lands access seem to be in no mood to negotiate with Texas billionaire brothers Dan and Farris Wilks over land exchange or access deals in central and north-central Montana.
Petitions are circulating asking the Bureau of Land Management’s state director to halt any talks about an exchange that would give the Wilkses possession of a landlocked parcel called the Durfee Hills, surrounded by their N Bar Ranch south of Lewistown, and to build a road around the Wilks’ Anchor Ranch in Blaine County to access 50,000 acres of BLM lands in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. A copy of the petition can now be found online.
Rumors have circulated in the region for two years about deals the BLM and Wilks brothers have discussed to come to an agreement, but since no formal proposal has been made, the process hasn’t been open to any public scrutiny or comment. That prompted the petition, said Ron Moody, a Lewistown resident and former Montana Fish and Wildlife commissioner.
“We want in on the conversation,” Moody said. “Are we supposed to sit out here and wait as influence is brought to bear? Can we speak up, or do we have to wait until we’re asked to speak up?”
The Durfee Hills is a parcel of about 2,700 acres of BLM land without public road access. That hasn’t stopped helicopter and airplane pilots from flying hunters into the property to hunt elk. A large herd of elk inhabits the public land, partly because the surrounding N Bar Ranch, purchased by the Wilks brothers three years ago, provides a little-hunted haven.
Last year, the Wilkses bought 22,800 acres in Blaine County, which includes a portion of land through which the Bullwhacker Road passes. Public land access advocates successfully persuaded the Blaine County attorney in 2007 to declare the road, which provides access to 50,000 acres of BLM land to the south, a public road. In 2011, the former landowners won a lawsuit challenging the decision and again controlled access. Last year, the Wilks brothers bought the ranch and have continued to control access along the road to the BLM land.
The suggestion that access to the Bullwhacker Road in Blaine County might be exchanged for the Durfee Hills in Fergus County riled up some folks, including John Gibson, president of the Public Land/Water Access Association.
“I see what the Wilks brothers are doing with their big land purchases, and I’m concerned that they might try to commercialize our wildlife, big game,” Gibson said.
The Friends of the Missouri Breaks National Monument, however, are urging such a swap to provide access and avoid building another road that would fragment the habitat, said Hugo Tureck, vice chair of the group.
Stan Benes, the BLM’s Lewistown Field Office district manager, has weathered the storm of rumors for the past two and a half years. He’s also been pressured by all of the competing interests, but said he still has no formal proposal that the public can scrutinize.
“They’re still interested,” Benes said of the Wilkses. “But there has been no decision and there is no proposal.”
“This has been going on for a couple of years now,” Moody said. “The BLM says nothing is going on, but the public isn’t dumb. They know they’re (the BLM) being lobbied by politicians.”
Moody said the sportsmen involved in the petition are hoping that it will “build a fire under the BLM to open up a route this year” to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, around the Wilks brothers’ Anchor Ranch.
The issues are nothing new, he added, but what is new is the speed and scale at which the Wilks brothers have acquired land.
Last year, the Wilkses added about 12,380 acres to their Fergus County holdings alone, where they now hold title to about 91,450 acres – about 143 square miles. In nearby Golden Valley County to the south, the Wilks brothers added more than 8,700 acres to their holdings in 2013, boosting their property there to about 43,750 acres. In adjacent Musselshell County, their holdings held steady at 64,000 acres, land that encompasses the Pronghorn Ranch previously owned by Earl Holding of Sinclair Oil fame.
As of 2012, the brothers owned 276,000 acres in seven Montana counties, not counting their holdings in other states.
The Wilks brothers acquired their fortune from selling their interest in Frac Tech in 2011, a deal that was reportedly worth $3.2 billion. Frac Tech was an oil fracking business, the same technology that’s being used to fuel North Dakota’s Bakken oil shale boom.