Letters from the West

To understand why billionaire brothers closed off land, know that Texas is not Idaho

Farris Wilks at a January 2016 campaign event for GOP candidate Ted Cruz in Cisco, Texas.
Farris Wilks at a January 2016 campaign event for GOP candidate Ted Cruz in Cisco, Texas. Associated Press

A confrontation between an ATV owner and a security guard hired to stop trespassers on private forest land is the latest chapter in a saga that began with two Texas billionaires’ purchase in 2016 of what was many Idahoans’ favorite place.

The 172,000 acres of forest land, first put together by Boise Cascade, are scattered across Valley, Boise and Adams counties and intermingled with state and federal lands, along with other nonindustrial private lands. The property has always been private, and its owners could do whatever they wanted within the law.

Boise Cascade, Potlatch and the other companies that previously owned the tracts chose to open them to the public. Campers, hunters, snowmobilers and other users couldn’t tell the difference between these private forest lands and public land for most of this period.

The Wilks family — led by two brothers, Farris and Dan Wilks — are not typical fat cats. They began as brick masons, then started a hydraulic fracturing and oil-field service company that they sold for $3.5 billion. The religious, family-oriented brothers are living the American Dream.

You can’t help but see them like Idaho’s potato king, the late J.R. Simplot.

Unfortunately for all sides, their dream and thousands of Westerners’ pursuits of happiness are hitting head on.

In Montana, the Wilkses have shut out many hunters from popular spots and are trying to obtain some of the best elk habitat near their ranch.

Here in Idaho, they came in and closed the forest land to hunting and other recreation, leaving some hunters with controlled tags but without a place to hunt. Popular trails and roads many people used now have gates on them, including Big Creek Road south of Meadows, Fish Lake Road southwest of McCall, and Mud Lake and Little Mud Lake roads west of New Meadows.

Make no mistake, the Wilkses have every right to close off what is their private property. I grew up on a farm 60 miles from Chicago and we often had problems keeping hunters from trespassing without asking permission.

The brothers come from Texas, where there is no public land to speak of and certainly no cultural tradition of public land recreation. When they shut everything down by this spring without public explanation, good maps and a communication strategy, they triggered the backlash they are facing today.

In short, they have gotten bad advice.

To many — to the motorized recreation community in particular — they have become the people who are blocking access, hampering a nearly sacred value shared by most Idahoans.

The Wilkses have become the land preservationists of the past who locked motorized users out of wilderness areas. They have taken the place of the faceless bureaucrats who closed someone’s favorite trail to protect some endangered species.

Both had the law behind them, too, but it didn’t make the people who were shut out any happier.

So now those frustrated with the changes are banding with hunters and conservation groups in seeking legislation that will give them more tools for protecting access. The Idaho Wildlife Federation has drafted a bill that would give the public the right to challenge a road closure where an easement once allowed the public to pass.

“Under current law, only county prosecutors can decide whether those closures are to be challenged in court,” said Brian Brooks, executive director of the federation. “Because county prosecutors often have very full dockets, access rights are too often left behind.”

Lobbyists for the Wilks family shopped around a stronger trespassing law last year, but never introduced it. They would have support from farmers and other landowners, but the current controversy is going to make it hard for Idaho politicians to take their side in anything.

The Wilks brothers need to start clean. They should reintroduce themselves to Idaho, and give Idahoans a chance and a reason to welcome them.

I doubt they came here to start a fight.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker