A representative for Montana’s largest private landowners said his clients were “blindsided” by a Tuesday news story in which the Bureau of Land Management said it would not consider the Durfee Hills as part of their proposed land exchange.
“That was a bit of a shocker,” said Darryl James, a Helena consultant who has been hired by Dan and Farris Wilks.
The Wilkses are billionaire Texas brothers who have purchased more than 301,300 acres across Montana.
In hopes of consolidating some of their holdings in Fergus County, the Wilks brothers proposed a land exchange to the BLM that included the agency-owned Durfee Hills.
The Durfee Hills are prized by central Montana elk hunters who petitioned the BLM to keep the land in federal ownership. The hills, a 2,700-acre parcel, can only be reached by airplane or helicopter.
In exchange for a combined 4,800 acres of federal lands, the Wilkses offered 5,200 acres of their private land to provide access to the Missouri River Breaks in Blaine County via Bullwhacker Road, as well as the Big Snowy Mountains along Red Hill Road.
On Monday, a BLM official said that the agency had taken the Durfee Hills off the table because of widespread public comment from around the country against the move. But James said the agency’s normal public hearing and comment process was “hijacked.”
“What’s been frustrating is the Wilkses have put their faith in a fair and public process,” James said.
He added that a number of “other discussions” were underway that could “address the perceived loss of access to the N Bar.” The N Bar is where the Wilks brothers have headquartered their Montana operations, a ranch sprawled along Flatwillow Creek in Fergus County. The ranch is also home to an elk herd estimated at more than 3,000 head.
After buying the N Bar, one of their first purchases in Montana, the Wilks brothers have sought surrounding lands. So far in Fergus County alone they own 97,600 acres, a figure that has grown by 6,150 acres just in the past four months, according to state land records.
James said his clients are unsure why the public process was halted before it started.
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“There’s a public process for this, and it’s not happening right now,” he said.
James said the Wilks brothers were also working to reopen public access along Bullwhacker Road in Blaine County. The brothers own the Anchor Ranch there, which the road passes through. The road has been at the center of an access dispute and is now closed to the public except by permission. The Wilkses had included the land surrounding the road as part of their trade with the BLM. The road travels to an area of about 50,000 acres of public land.
“We are working to open the Bullwhacker Road as soon as the BLM shows they are working in good faith to a long-term solution,” James said.
Opponents of the Durfee Hills exchange also have said they want the BLM to build its own access route to the Missouri Breaks, around Bullwhacker Road, and have even promised to help fund the work.
Although applauding the Wilks brothers’ good-faith effort, the Central Montana Hunters wrote in an email that, “Temporary access permission from private property owners, however, does not meet the needs for permanent public access by road into the Bullwhacker Watershed.
“Central Montana Hunters, therefore, will move forward with vigor to partner with BLM this summer to upgrade for public use any of several existing two-tracks across BLM land into the Bullwhacker,” the email added. The email names Mark Schwomeyer as president of the group and former Fish and Wildlife Commisioner Ron Moody as spokesperson.
Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, a member of the Private Land/Public Wildlife Council, said in a meeting of the group in Billings last week that the Wilks brothers are trying to be good neighbors. Farris Wilks addressed the council at a meeting in Lewistown in March.
“I think he’s trying to figure out how to be a neighbor; at the same time he’s an extremely private man,” Peterson said.
“I think he’s a pretty genuine individual, but he has a different set of values than you have,” he added.
Peterson called the opponents to the Wilkses proposed land exchange “a small group of sportsmen.
“But from a business perspective and public perspective, the public benefits big time from this trade,” he said.