Few favor Wilks proposal but council approves land-swap concept

While favoring the concept of a land swap, an advisory committee stopped short of approving a new Wilks brothers proposal to trade parts of their property for landlocked federal parcels in eastern Montana.

On Thursday, the Bureau of Land Management Central Resource Advisory Council finished up a two-day meeting in Lewistown by passing a motion to consider the concept of a land swap as an alternative to building a new road to access the Bullwacker area near the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument.

On Wednesday, BLM managers gave the council copies of the draft proposal submitted by Dan and Ferris Wilks and asked whether the proposal should be added to an environmental assessment of building a new road into the Bullwacker region.  The RAC can only advise the BLM, but in the end, it did not endorse the specific proposal.

Wilks spokesman Darryl James said they weren’t looking for an endorsement.

“We’re not looking for influence one way or another – all we’re looking for is kicking off an objective review process that got kind of short-circuited a year or so ago,” James said. “We’re pleased that the RAC has recommended to go ahead and plug (the proposal) into that process and see what the merits are.”

The Wilks brothers own two ranches south of the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument that contain sections of public land. The Anchor Ranch includes land within the monument while the NBar Ranch farther south has landlocked sections of both state and BLM land, most notably the Durfee Hills.

The 2,700 acres of the Durfee Hills are accessible only by air, but backcountry hunters and pilots consider the area to be valuable public land.

The Wilks want it for their own, so in March 2014, they proposed to trade their land within the monument for the Durfee Hills and other BLM sections within the NBar Ranch. They’ve also offered to allow public access to the Bullwacker area via a disputed road that passes through the Anchor Ranch.

After heated public comment in 2014, the BLM tabled the proposal and moved forward with options for providing an alternative road into the Bullwacker area. But the options are fraught with potential problems and building the road would be costly.

Now the Wilks have come forward with a new proposal that they recently previewed to a hand-selected group of sportsmen’s, landowner and agricultural organizations. However, it isn’t much different from the original proposal except for a few details and a promise of possible block-management hunting on the NBar Ranch.

Participants in the roundtable said they had no part in crafting the proposal but were allowed to voice their concerns.

“There’s a misperception out there. Other than make comments, we didn’t contribute. None of us had seen the draft until we got there Thursday,” said Montana Sportsmen Alliance representative Joe Perry. “A lot of suggestions were made, but it was not a collaborative effort. I suggested that they should open up the Bullwacker Road as a gesture of good will and not be using it for ransom.”

Jeff Patnode of the Recreational Aviation Foundation said he had thought the first meeting went well but was disappointed when he saw the draft proposal.

“I felt that we all got to make suggestions and I walked away thinking we might get somewhere with this. But it’s essentially unchanged,” Patnode said. “They’ve put frosting on it with things like block management. But that can be revoked at anytime. Then they have the land and there’s no longstanding thing for my kids or my grandkids.”

Doug Krings of Central Montana Outdoors, a relatively new organization, said four sportsmen’s groups were not allowed to participate, including the Traditional Bowhunters of Montana, Montana Bowhunters Association, the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and Central Montana Outdoors.

“Initially, we declined because it was a working group and we didn’t know who the other players were. Then we thought better of it and asked to be included. But we were all told they had enough sportsmen,” Krings said.

John Sullivan of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers said his organization would oppose the land swap to keep the Durfee Hills, but other groups are still weighing their response.

“We’re getting a bunch of heat to take a position. My feeling is we will not take a position because we have members on both sides of the fence,” Perry said. “We were just trying to make sure there wasn’t a blanket dismissal of any land trade just because the first one wasn’t good enough.”

That was also the intent of the Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument, said executive director Beth Kampschror.

“Our issue is not the parcels that are south of the monument; our mission is to protect the monument,” Kampschror said. “We haven’t taken an official stand, but anything that means there won’t be a brand new road really looks good to us.”

On Wednesday, Lewistown hunter Ron Moody told the RAC to delay acting on the proposal until the trespass conflicts are resolved.

The Wilks built fences around the Durfee Hills parcels that appear to encroach on BLM property, so they were given a cease-and-desist order until the BLM could investigate.

BLM District Manager Stan Benes said the law enforcement investigation and damage assessment is now complete and will soon be published in the Federal Register.

Moody said BLM documents prohibit any land transfer until trespass conflicts are resolved.

James said the Wilks were willing to move the fence once they were notified of the problem. So they will do what is needed to resolve the problem, James said.

When asked whether the brothers might consider some sort of permanent access agreement to ease hunter concerns, James said no.

“It becomes pretty lopsided,” James said. “The Wilks are putting more than 16,000 acres into a managed hunt area. The public has extraordinarily limited access to 2,400 acres now, and sportsmen are saying ‘We’ll give that up as long as you give us permanent access to 16,000 acres.’ Does that sound reasonable to you?”

James said the Wilks could initiate the block management program this fall. By the time any potential land swap would be finalized a few years from now, both the Wilks and hunters would have had a few seasons to see how things worked, James said.

Patnode and others aren’t buying it, considering the loss of permanent access to a prime elk herd and three airstrips in the Durfee Hills.

“The landowners of the NBar Ranch have changed a number of times, and the Wilks brothers are in their 70s. So what’s to say they won’t sell it to someone else in five years and they change everything that the Montana public was promised?” Patnode said.