BILLINGS -- In a show of goodwill to Montana hunters and the Bureau of Land Management, landowner Farris Wilks said Friday he will allow travel across his family's Anchor Ranch in north-central Montana to provide access to 50,000 acres of BLM land.
The roadway will be open from Sept. 1 -- the opening of the upland bird season -- through Jan. 1. "Future access opportunities will be considered" as the BLM evaluates the Wilkses' proposed land exchange, according to a press release from a Wilks family representative.
“If we’re making progress with the exchange, the roadway conditions are suitable for vehicle use, and everyone is respectful of our property and cattle operations, we’ll continue to make this opportunity available,” Wilks said in the press release.
"Good for them," said Doug Krings, of the sporting group Central Montana Outdoors. "There will be some (bighorn) sheep hunters happy to have access to that area."
In three years, Wilks and his brother, Dan, have become the largest private landowners in Montana after earning an estimated $3 billion from selling their Texas oil fracking business. To consolidate their holdings in Fergus County, the brothers approached the BLM last year to discuss a land exchange.
According to a draft land exchange proposal drawn up by the Wilkses, they purchased the Anchor Ranch in Blaine County in 2011 after BLM officials indicated that was an important public access site that the agency was seeking a route through or around. But when Lewistown's Central Montana Outdoors group garnered more than 1,000 signatures opposing the inclusion of two large parcels in the land swap, the BLM pulled back.
The hunters object to the inclusion of a 2,700-acre and a 1,000-acre BLM inholding, each of which is attached to an accessible 640 acres of state land, and refuse to consider any exchange as long as they are included. A new petition has already garnered 2,100 signatures opposing inclusion of the parcels in the exchange.
Some hunters fly into the parcels to hunt elk, since there is no road access to the lands. A fence constructed last year around the property by the Wilkses has trespassed onto BLM land. Some opponents to the land exchange contend no land deal can be worked out as long as the fence is in violation.
The hunters also contend that should a land exchange ever be finalized, there would be no incentive for the Wilkses to keep their land open to the public and any managed hunting on their lands would be withdrawn. According to the Wilkses' Montana representative, Darryl James, managed hunting would continue in perpetuity as long as the hunters were respectful.
Frustrated by the BLM's initial refusal to consider a land exchange, the Wilkses have drawn up a formal land exchange proposal, first in a draft form released in July and finalized this week. The formal proposals include an enticement to open another 14,500 acres of Wilks land to managed hunting in Fergus County. Although the offer can't be considered by the BLM in its process, the move would help Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks cut the growth of an expanding elk herd that seeks refuge during the hunting season on the Wilkses' private N Bar Ranch.
There are only a few differences between the draft and final land exchange proposals, James said, including providing "a bit more clarity" on the benefits of the Wilkses' Red Hill Road parcels to the public, land that would access the Big Snowy Mountains and the Lewis and Clark National Forest.
"For example, (Forest Service) personnel have signaled their support for opening access to the two-track route to Old Baldy from Red Hill Road, and we’ve provided more detail on the access improvements as compared to that provided by the (Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation) parcel and the existing BLM parcels along Red Hill Road," James wrote in an email.
Prior to the Wilkses purchasing the Anchor Ranch, it had been at the center of an access dispute. The previous owners had controlled public access with permission, but the Public Land/Water Access Association successfully petitioned the Blaine County attorney to open the road as a public route in 2007, citing historical documentation. When the landowners appealed the decision, a judge overturned the county attorney's ruling. The Wilkses purchased the Anchor Ranch in 2011.
“We didn’t create this access issue, but we are pleased to provide a land exchange opportunity to secure permanent public access to the Breaks and address our own concerns at one of our other ranching operations at the same time,” Wilks said in the press release.
The BLM once called public access to the region its top priority. Last year, the agency surveyed other possible routes around the Anchor Ranch to gain motorized access to the federal land. The review showed the ranch's road to be the best, since the other routes would be longer, go through erosive soils and require extensive dirt movement and culverts to cross deep coulees making the roadwork expensive. Advocates of building a BLM route noted that conservation groups have offered to help with the construction costs.
Although allowing public access across the Anchor Ranch this hunting season, the Wilkses still have some requirements of visitors. The statement from Wilks said visitors must remain on the roadway at all times on private ground; noted that the BLM prohibits off-road travel; all hunters must sign in at the gate or they will be in violation of hunting without permission; all gates should be closed unless they have been wired open or signed; there is no camping on private land; and visitors should be cautious about parking vehicles in tall grass because of the extreme fire danger.