Letters from the West

Texas billionaires will deal on Idaho trail access, Valley County official says

Farris Wilks at a January campaign event for GOP candidate Ted Cruz in Cisco, Texas.
Farris Wilks at a January campaign event for GOP candidate Ted Cruz in Cisco, Texas.

The two Texas billionaire brothers who bought 172,000 acres of forest land in Southern Idaho stopped logging in part because they were worried it was being overlogged, a Valley County official said.

And they were disgusted with the trash they found at the many dispersed campsites spread out across the lands previously owned by Boise Cascade and Potlatch Corp., said Larry Laxson, Valley County Parks and Recreation Director.

Most of all, Laxson said, he is hopeful access for snowmobiles to the county’s extensive trail system can be worked out for this winter. He has been talking to Farris and Dan Wilks and their representatives every week.

“They are very reclusive, they kind of want their privacy,” Laxson said. “They’re good people.”

I first reported in August that the Wilks brothers had purchased the land owned for decades by Boise Cascade in Valley, Adams and Boise counties. The two have been buying up land all over the West, and closing off much of the access to those lands.

The Wilks brothers have closed off the timberlands to hunting and other recreation. They already canceled leases with Valley County to maintain roads that provided access to snowmobile trails on public land. I have repeatedly called their businesses, including on Friday, and gotten no response.

Laxson said the Wilks simply want to start over, assess how the land is being managed and write new contracts with the county and others over logging, access and recreation.

“They were concerned about the amount of logging and how small the trees that were being cut were — and they should be,” Laxson said. He said Potlatch, which most recently owned the forestland, was logging heavily to make up for losses.

As for campers, berry pickers and other members of the public who have traditionally used the lands, Laxson said the Wilks brothers are from Texas where there is no public land. The brothers aren’t familiar with the culture of public access and the way these forest lands have been managed for nearly a century.

“They were upset that people were leaving their trash all over,” Laxson said. “I explained there were user groups who would go out and clean up because we care about the land.”

The Wilks brothers, who made their fortune in the oil well services business, visited their new domain in September for two days. But they don’t have a management plan or a vision on how they want to manage the area yet. Laxson wants people to give the Wilks time to determine what they will do on what is their private land.

Laxson said just a part of the Valley County trail system is affected by the access the company ended with the county. More than 18,000 snowmobilers use the West Mountain snowmobile trail system annually, according to a study by Headwaters Economics of Bozeman, Mont. Closing the trails, the 2006 study said, would cost the Valley County economy $832,000 in sales.

“We have existing cost-share agreements that keep access to the public land trail system, including roads that cross private land,” Laxson said. “There also are county roads that cross the land. We’re working with them on the very few that don’t have an easement.”

At the heart of this issue, Laxson said, is private property rights.

“If we are going to be allowed continued access to their property, beyond what is covered by easements, we are going to have to prove that we can be good neighbors and dependable partners,” Laxson posted to the Idaho Recreational Council site. “Remember they are under no obligation to allow public access any more than you have to let people use your property.”

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker