Wilks brothers get personal in pitch for land exchange

2014-08-20T06:00:00Z 2014-08-21T15:08:14Z Wilks brothers get personal in pitch for land exchangeBy BRETT FRENCH french@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Ending years of speculation, Montana’s largest private landowners announced on a website they built to promote a land exchange that their extensive property purchases in the state are not geared to oil and gas exploration.

“The plans for the N Bar Ranch are to rebuild its heritage and ranching operations, as well as improve wildlife management,” Dan and Farris Wilks’ MontanaPublicAccess.com website says. “The N Bar was not purchased by the Wilks for oil and gas exploration.”

The billionaire Texas brothers have declined newspaper requests for interviews since buying the N Bar in 2011. The historic ranch in Fergus County has become the base of operations for the brothers, who later added a paved landing strip across from the headquarters on Flatwillow Creek capable of handling their private jet.

Farris Wilks told a gathering in Lewistown earlier this year that he hoped to retire to Montana in the not-too-distant future.

Rumor mill

Because the brothers made their fortune from selling an oil fracking business, rumors immediately began flying that they would pursue oil and gas exploration on their newly purchased Montana lands. The state’s first oil discovery was in nearby Petroleum County in the Cat Creek area east of Winnett and old oil derricks still stand south of the N Bar along Highway 87.

Rumors also circulated that the Wilks brothers would be bringing Texas-style commercialized hunting to Montana, but the website also denied that speculation.

“Commercialized hunting on the N Bar is not part of their business plan nor vision.”

Farris Wilks told the Lewistown gathering earlier this year that he and his friends enjoy archery elk hunting on the ranch. The family has also allowed young new hunters from the Lewistown area as well as veterans to use the ranch on a limited basis.

“Simply said, the Wilks are interested in re-establishing a premier black angus ranch at the N Bar,” the website says.

To build up the N Bar, the website said they have spent more than $1 million in just the last year “with Montana cattle raisers to improve the herd. But our improvements in alfalfa fields and water systems also benefit resident wildlife and relieve stress on neighboring U.S. Forest Service lands.”

In the most recent count, the brothers’ Wilks Ranch Montana Ltd. has amassed almost 311,500 acres of farm and ranchland in seven counties in the state. The original N Bar purchase was 62,000 acres.

Background

Dan and Farris Wilks were raised in a working-class family, growing up on a 160-acre homestead in North Texas. They started out in a masonry business that their father founded.

In 2002, they branched out into the oil business, starting a company called Frac Tech. Their fortune came from selling their interest in Frac Tech in 2011, a deal that was reportedly worth $3.2 billion. That sale landed them on the Forbes magazine list of little-known billionaires, ranking 312 out of 400 on the list in 2011.

Montana became an attractive destination for the brothers to park some of their new wealth, partly because they had long heard stories from their Billings-based uncle, carpenter Weldon Virgil Fenter.

“Our interest in Montana goes back to the 1950s when our uncle moved here,” the website says. “We grew up listening to his stories of the Montana countryside and dreamt of owning land here. Through years of hard work and good fortune in our various business endeavors, we had the opportunity to purchase land here and see parts of those dreams come to life.

“As all Montanans know, Montana is one of the last places on Earth to own land in its original, unadulterated state. This is a dream come true for the Wilks, not a play for profit. The Wilks have worked hard to get where they are now, honoring the principles, ethics, and character learned from their father. Family, faith and community come first and foremost in all that they pursue, and this includes their intentions for the N Bar Ranch.”

Motivation

The Wilks went public with a more personal story after twice being shot down by the Bureau of Land Management on a proposed land exchange. The brothers have attempted to consolidate their property by trading isolated BLM tracts within their ranch boundaries for a ranch and other property they purchased in northern Montana’s Blaine County. The Blaine County property would include the Bullwhacker Road, a route that provides vehicle access to 50,000 acres of BLM land.

“As any farmer or rancher will tell you, it is simply more efficient to manage an operation with consistent ownership,” their website says. “This is a wise business decision, and it provides a rare opportunity for the BLM and state of Montana to address a specific public access issue in the Breaks, as well.”

The Wilks have also made their presence known in Montana by being the top contributors to the campaigns of Montana Republican candidates in 2012.

Dan and Farris Wilks and their wives, who all list Texas as home, donated to more than 70 candidates, all Republicans, and generally gave the maximum contribution allowed by law to legislative candidates, $160 for a general election. The total exceeded $51,000.

Brought up in the Bible Belt, the Wilks brothers’ commitment to religious conservative agendas and returning the Bible to the classroom was revealed in a July 8 article on Christian Today’s website.

According to the article, Dan Wilks told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “I just think we need to make people aware and bring the Bible back into the school, and start teaching our kids at a younger age.”

“They’re being taught the other ideas, the gay agenda, every day out in the world so we have to stand up and explain to them that that’s not real, that’s not proper, it’s not right,” Farris Wilks is quoted as saying.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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