In an unusual tactic, Montana’s largest private landowners have taken their proposal for a land exchange with the Bureau of Land Management directly to the public via a website.
Billionaire Texas brothers Dan and Farris Wilks launched the site — MontanaPublicAccess.com — late last week in anticipation that the BLM would reject their latest offer. The website includes an online petition supporting the land exchange.
“More than anything, we think the public deserves to see it,” said Jimmy Williams, a spokesman for the Wilkses.
Wilks Ranch Montana Ltd. said in an email announcing the website that the brothers decided to “disclose their revised proposed land exchange to the public regardless of the Bureau of Land Management’s silent nondisclosure approach in light of the BLM’s choice to possibly reject the Wilkses’ revised proposal before allowing public awareness and understanding.”
On Monday the BLM announced that it was indeed dropping consideration of the Wilkses’ proposal, which would have offered public vehicle access to about 50,000 acres of public land north of the Missouri River. The agency’s decision was based on the complexity of the exchange, a lack of staffing and the length of time the process would take, according to Jonathon Moor, BLM spokesman for the Lewistown Field Office.
The Wilkses had met considerable opposition, especially in Lewistown, to their initial proposal, which would have included 2,700 acres of BLM land known as the Durfee Hills. The Durfee Hills are surrounded by the Wilkses’ N Bar Ranch, headquartered along Flatwillow Creek, but some hunters have been flying in via planes and helicopters to pursue elk on the public acreage.
Local hunters said the Wilkses’ initial proposal wasn’t fair because the quality of elk hunting in the Durfee Hills couldn’t compare to the Anchor Ranch — which accesses the Missouri Breaks. The Wilkses were offering the Anchor Ranch in exchange.
The Wilkses’ latest proposal — made to the BLM in June — excluded the Durfee Hills. A representative of the Central Montana Hunters said his group would need time to digest all of the information contained in the revised offer before taking a stance.
“We’re not opposed to all land exchanges,” said Doug Krings, “just ones that don’t benefit the public.”
In addition to removing the Durfee Hills from the proposal, the Wilkses’ revised offer proposes to trade 4,000 acres they own — land south of Havre in Blaine County that includes the Anchor Ranch and its Bullwhacker Road — for 2,800 acres of BLM land in Fergus County that has no public road access.
But even without the Durfee Hills, the BLM’s Moor said the land exchange wasn’t in the “best interest of the public.” He added that the BLM did not go to the public with any revised proposals because it seemed clear that it would be a long and complicated process.
“We decided it would be in the best interest of the public to focus on other things the public wanted us to do,” Moor said.
A simple land exchange the agency had worked on previously took eight years, he noted, so the Wilkses’ proposal would require a “lot more man hours.”
Central Montana Hunters said in May that they would partner with the BLM to open an alternate access to the 50,000 acres of public land north of the Missouri River, but so far no progress has been made on that front, according to Moor.
Although access to the area was dubbed a high priority for the Montana-Dakotas BLM director, Moor said no vehicle access to the area would be in place by this hunting season, although hunters can hike or fly into the region.
“We’re looking at a range of options to establish a road in there,” Moor said, adding that any decision would take a while since a road would require an environmental review and time for public comment.
He did say, however, that an announcement on accessing the large swath of BLM acreage would be made soon.
“We wanted to close one chapter before we opened the next,” he said.