BILLINGS -- Calling land exchanges a “purely discretionary act,” the Bureau of Land Management has decided once again not to pursue a land exchange with two of Montana’s largest private landowners, billionaire brothers Dan and Farris Wilks.
“It just isn’t prudent for me to commit staff and time without knowing we could see it through to the end,” said Mark Albers, manager of BLM’s Central Montana District in Lewistown.
Albers announced his decision to the district’s Resource Advisory Council during a meeting Tuesday in Great Falls. In a phone interview, Albers said he decided against pursuing the deal when he considered all of the priorities facing his office.
“What I’d like to do is take a step back and look at all of the available options,” he said.
Helena consultant Darryl James, who has been representing the Wilkses on the land exchange proposal, said he was displeased with the decision.
“I’m shocked at the way BLM has treated the Wilkses in this whole deal,” he said. “The lack of respectful communication is stunning to me.”
When the idea of a possible land exchange first came to light in the spring of 2014 it was instantly controversial. The Wilkseswere proposing to exchange the Anchor Ranch they had purchased north of the Missouri River in Blaine County, along with other lands, for a landlocked parcel of BLM property known as the Durfee Hills in Fergus County.
Some conservationists hailed the proposal since it would offer a road into 50,000 acres of BLM land along the Missouri River. But Lewistown hunters and others quickly rallied to oppose the measure, saying the quality of the Durfee Hills, especially for elk hunters who can only access the property by flying in by helicopter or light plane, far surpassed other lands the Wilkses were offering.
“The proposed exchange was a bad land deal that would have harmed the public financial interest and reduced elk hunting opportunity,” said Doug Krings, of the Central Montana Outdoors group, in an email.
“We felt it was not a good deal, it was not a fair trade at all,” said Bill Geer, chairman of the access committee for the Montana Wildlife Federation. “Durfee Hills is far and away of much greater value.”
Geer also said the exchange would have set a dangerous precedent for future land exchanges.
Mike Penfold, a retired BLM official living in Billings, had advocated in favor of the exchange.
“I believe there’s an opportunity being missed,” he said. “The property and the access (at Anchor Ranch) presented a real opportunity.”
Penfold said he had hoped that BLM could one day consolidate its land in that region of the state to open up more opportunities for managing the acreage.
Albers said the BLM will continue to investigate other routes into its Missouri River property from the north. Hikers and hunters can already reach the property on foot and from the Missouri River to the south. But the Anchor Ranch provides a key road into the property. When BLM explored other options for roads last year engineers concluded building a new road would be expensive and at the risk of failing because of the erosive soils.
“I’m not interested in cutting a road into there,” Albers said. “We’ll look at all opportunities and define what access means — trails for foot access, ATV trails — to decide what kind of experience folks want.”
Krings praised the decision.
“Now the way is clear for some sensible resolution of the public access issues in the Bullwhacker watershed given time and collaborative engagement,” Krings said.
As a show of good faith in the land exchange negotiations, the Wilkses had provided access across the Anchor Ranch this hunting season. James said well over 800 people signed in at the Fish, Wildlife and Parks registration box, adding up to about 1,200 hunter days for those pursuing elk, deer, and bighorn sheep and those hiking.
“They were thrilled with that,” James said.
In comparison, he said by his count the Durfee Hills played host to an average of about 30 to 60 “predominantly trophy bull elk hunters” a year.
James did not know if the brothers would choose to keep the Anchor Ranch road open now that the exchange has been dismissed.
Opposition to the exchange accelerated in the fall of 2014 after the Wilkses had a contractor build a new fence around the Durfee Hills public land. The contractor bulldozed down trees and, according to watchdog accounts, trespassed onto BLM property and felled trees. After first denying the fence infringed on BLM land, the agency launched a survey and filed a report with its law enforcement staff, which it has still not made public.
Albers said BLM gave a copy of its report to the Wilkses a couple of weeks ago and is waiting for a response.
James said the Wilksesare willing to re-vegetate bulldozed routes and take measures to halt erosion, but there were questions about what had been agreed to during a tour of the site and the final language the BLM used in its documentation.
“There’s no issue from the Wilkses on what needs to be done,” James said.