A controversial land exchange between billionaire Texas brothers Dan and Farris Wilks and the Bureau of Land Management that was shot down last year has come back to life.
At a meeting Thursday in Billings, Lewistown BLM manager Stan Benes said the land exchange would be one of four alternatives considered in an environmental assessment studying the best way to provide motorized access to 50,000 acres of federal land in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. He added that it would be up to the Wilkses or some other group to organize a round-table discussion on what lands would be involved in the exchange.
“We need a formal proposal,” Benes said. “We might get something general from the Wilks side. Hopefully, it will be a collaboratively formed proposal and would go out again for public review.”
The Wilkses purchased the Anchor Ranch in Blaine County with the idea of exchanging it with the BLM in return for consolidating their holdings in Fergus County that has isolated and landlocked BLM parcels. In the original proposal, the Wilkses included in their wish list of BLM lands a 2,700-acre parcel known as the Durfee Hills.
Although landlocked, the Durfee Hills is accessible by airplane and helicopter. And since it is a large parcel within the Wilkses’ vast N Bar Ranch where no public hunting is allowed, the hills contain a portion of what may be the state’s largest concentration of elk. Because of that, Lewistown hunters quickly rallied support and launched a petition drive that led the BLM to kill its pursuit of the land exchange.
“We were warned that legal action would come if we got rid of the Durfee Hills,” Benes said.
The Wilks brothers felt jilted and took a new proposal directly to the public on a website, to no avail. But after talks with some conservationists, landowners and sportsmen more recently, Wilks brothers’ representative Darryl James has gotten approval to sweeten the deal with new proposals.
James told the small public gathering Thursday that the Wilks brothers are offering to exchange land that would connect the Big and Little Snowy mountain ranges in Fergus County across Red Hill Road to provide wildlife connectivity as well as public access — possibly a mile-wide swath. In addition, the brothers are open to the idea of placing 20,000 to 25,000 acres of the historic N Bar Ranch into Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Block Management Program, which would allow controlled public hunting to reduce the ranch’s overpopulation of elk.
“At this point it’s conceptual,” James said, adding that he would be willing to host meetings to hammer out a proposal in a couple months, after the state Legislature has recessed.
Hunters expressed concern that the Block Management enrollment would only be temporary.
For the BLM, the attraction of the land exchange is that ownership of the Anchor Ranch would once again return public motorized access into a northern portion of the Missouri Breaks. The Bullwhacker Road runs through the ranch, and since Blaine County lost its claim to the road as a public right of way in a court case years ago, access has been closed or regulated.
When the land exchange seemed to have died last year, the BLM vowed to find another motorized route into the vast badlands landscape. So this summer, engineers and the monument manager hiked into the backcountry searching for the best path. What they found was not surprising given the terrain. Any road would require several culverts, the clay soil is not very good for building roads and several of the road grades entering and leaving coulees would be steep, requiring lots of fill dirt in some instances. Narrowing the possible routes down to two, a rough estimate of the cost for the cheapest road to the east of the Anchor Ranch and existing Bullwhacker Road would be $600,000 for about 5 miles of road, according to Carl Patten, BLM engineer.
“It’s mostly clays overlying shale,” he said. “It’s not a very good foundation when it gets wet.”
“The old-timers put the (Bullwhacker) road in the right spot — on the crown of a ridge avoiding problems with crossing coulees, and it’s an easy grade,” said Mike Kania, monument manager.
Benes said some people had questioned why the BLM doesn’t just condemn the Bullwhacker Road to take public ownership, but he said the agency would never do that.
Considering the expense of constructing a new road, and figuring in annual maintenance that may be required, the land exchange began to look more palatable to the public at BLM meetings held in December in Chinook, Great Falls and Lewistown, Benes said.
At the Billings meeting, the public was divided over what the BLM should do.
“I’m really happy to hear that the land exchange will be part of the EA,” said Beth Kampschror, executive director of the conservation group Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument.
Likewise, former BLM official Mike Penfold, of Billings, said he thinks the land exchange is a great way to consolidate public land holdings within the monument.
Ron Moody, a former Fish and Wildlife Commissioner from Lewistown who helped organize opposition to the original land exchange proposal, warned monument folks at the meeting that hunters “are not going to let you monument folks throw us under the bus” to reach an agreement.
He and others at the meeting reiterated that if the Durfee Hills are included in the land exchange, despite their isolation and the fact that hunting is limited to the few who can afford to fly in, hunters would wage a “long and hard fight.
“There are values associated with isolated parcels that are precious to Montanans,” Moody added.
John Gibson, president of the Public Land/Water Access Association, said he is afraid a new land exchange proposal is simply a way to delay the BLM. “Build a road,” he said.
James said the Wilks brothers are not interested in stalling, and he said the landowners are “perfectly willing to open up the Bullwhacker Road as long as we are engaging in this process.” But, he added, “There has to be a mutual commitment.”
Calling the subject of the land exchange a “hot topic the last couple of years,” Benes reminded the group that the basis of the discussion is all about providing public access to public lands, “more specifically in this case, motorized public access.” He noted the BLM has no money to construct a road, although the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has said it would be willing to help with the cost. Benes also said it could take four to eight years to complete a land exchange.
“Without sufficient public support it’s a slow and futile process,” he said, adding that the BLM is in “no hurry whatsoever to build a new road into the monument.”
The BLM will continue to take public comments on how it should proceed, or to consider other options for access into the area, until March 5. A draft environmental assessment is tentatively expected to be completed by May.