Two Texas billionaires are taking a second stab at trading part of their Montana property for federal inholdings, but this time, they’re offering hunters access to much of their land.
On Friday, Darryl James, spokesman for Dan and Farris Wilks, released a draft of a land-exchange proposal developed during two recent roundtable meetings between the Wilks brothers, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and 13 sportsmen’s, landowner’s, conservation and agricultural organizations. The most recent roundtable met on Thursday.
Under the proposal soon to be submitted to the Bureau of Land Management, the Wilks would transfer six parcels of more than 5,100 acres to the BLM. Four parcels containing 70 percent of the acreage are adjacent to or within the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument.
The Wilks would also grant public access across both their Anchor Ranch to the north in Blaine County and NBar Ranch to the south in Fergus County.
The Anchor Ranch easement would allow people to reach 1,000 acres on a more remote side of the monument. The NBar easement would improve access to U.S. Forest Service land in the Big Snowy Mountains.
In exchange, the Wilks would receive a dozen BLM sections amounting to about 4,900 acres that are surrounded by the NBar Ranch.
One additional item might make the proposal more acceptable to hunters who have opposed previous land trade attempts: hunting access.
As part of the deal but not directly considered by the BLM, the Wilks are proposing to open more than 14,500 acres of the NBar Ranch to public elk hunting. That’s because hunters resisted giving up the BLM inholdings on the ranch that provide access to the Durfee Hills and the Big and Little Snowy Mountains.
Hunters are currently able to access almost 3,900 acres of BLM land and almost 1,300 acres of state land within the ranch boundaries.
None of the exchanges would happen immediately. Once the proposal is submitted to the BLM, the administrative and public processes take from 18 months to five years to complete.
However, some of the skids might already be greased since this isn’t the first Wilks proposal to the BLM.
The Wilks arrived on the scene about five years ago. After starting Frac Tech, an oil and gas fracking company, in 2002, they used their profits to start buying up large ranches in eastern Montana.
Coming from Texas where only about 4 percent of the state is public land, they had a different understanding of public rights and access to public land inholdings.
After learning they couldn’t buy federal inholdings on their ranch outright, they started working on how to swap land with the BLM. In 2012, they bought the Anchor Ranch, which provides access to the Bullwhacker area and the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument.
So the first land swap proposal in March 2014 included portions of the Anchor Ranch.
The BLM encountered stiff opposition to the idea during scoping meetings. Managers decided against moving forward with the trade and instead proposed building a new road to access the monument.
The road proposal wasn’t well received either. That’s when the roundtable meetings were initiated.
Some don't support this draft proposal, partially out of mistrust. Some of the Wilks’ past actions have raised hackles, such as fencing off areas and posting guards at gates.
Some hunters don’t want to give up the 2,700-acre Durfee Hills parcel within the NBar Ranch.
If the proposal enters the public process, it's sure to encounter resistance.
But most who were part of the roundtable discussions were reported as viewing the resulting proposal as positive, although some are still wary of losing access to hunting once the deal goes through.
According to the draft proposal written by James:
“The majority of the participants see tremendous value in the proposed exchange and are committed to an open dialogue that would ensure not just an equitable exchange of land but one that also guarantees improved public access to public lands.”
Participants included the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Montana Stockgrowers, Montana Farm Bureau Federation, Montana Farmers Union, Montana Wildlife Federation, United Property Owners of Montana and the Montana Pilot’s Association, among others.
When asked for comment, some sportsmen's and conservation organizations said they are still formulating their response.*
Final edits to the draft proposal are being made through the end of the month, after which it will be sent to the BLM.
* - Paragraph added after original publication.