Letters from the West

This was Texas billionaires’ role in revising Idaho trespass law

No trespassing signs can be found along many roads skirting open range in the Boise Foothills that hikers, bikers and hunters find enticing to explore.
No trespassing signs can be found along many roads skirting open range in the Boise Foothills that hikers, bikers and hunters find enticing to explore. Idaho Statesman file

The two controversial Texas brothers who have bought thousands of acres of Idaho forest land weren’t listed as a part of the coalition that successfully carried a trespassing bill to the governor’s desk.

The Wilks brothers were involved. But they weren’t the driving force, said House Speaker Scott Bedke.

“To attribute this trespassing bill to the Wilks brothers is not completely accurate,” Bedke said.

The bill updates three different sections of Idaho trespass law. It revises private property notice requirements and increases trespassing penalties. Law enforcement and sportsmen’s groups have lingering questions about the measure, and lawmakers are waiting to see whether Gov. Butch Otter will veto the bill before they end the session this week.

Critics sought the entire session to pin the bill on Dan and Farris Wilks, the Texas billionaires who have angered hunters, ATV riders, campers and local officials in central Idaho after they closed off 172,000 acres of forest they bought in 2016. The land was already private property for years, but hunters and others had enjoyed access to it and the network of roads running through it under previous owners Boise Cascade and Potlatch Corp.

Initially, the Wilkses closed down logging, hunting and canceled leases with Valley County to main roads that provided access to snowmobile trails on public lands. They later worked out a deal with the county and Idaho snowmobilers that reopened some access. And the brothers made news again earlier this month when they put 54,000 acres in Idaho up for sale.

But a 2017 video showing a run-in between a security guard and a Valley County recreationalist on the public Clear Creek Road reinforced the view that the brothers were not good neighbors.

Rep. Terry Gestrin, R-Donnelly, was a strong supporter of the trespassing bill. He said his constituents aren’t happy with the Wilkses, and if the bill was seen as solely protecting them, he couldn’t have supported it.

“I didn’t appreciate what the Wilkses did either,” Gestrin said. “I told Justin (Wilks, Farris’ son) this isn’t Texas.”

But it is private land, and farmers, ranchers and other large landowners have complained for years about the mixed-up and toothless set of rules and laws around trespassing. Bedke said many of his neighbors have been trying to get him to address the problem for several years.

He had talked previously to Farris Wilks about access issues. But, he said, other landowners, ranchers and farmers also sought legislation to fix the current laws.

“My neighbors don’t know who the Wilks brothers are,” said the Oakley Republican rancher.

In 2017, the various groups that had been considering legislation came together and met with legislative leadership, said Russ Hendricks, director of governmental affairs for the Idaho Farm Bureau.

“They told us to go ahead for this year,” Hendricks said.

The Wilks brothers’ lobbyists in 2017, John Foster and Kate Haas, also approached the trespass group, Hendricks said.

“We visited with them and they said they were working on it too,” Hendricks said.

Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, had just come off of spearheading legislation to reform the state’s oil and gas law, and now would lead the trespassing effort in the House. She often had been in conflict with Foster, who then represented Alta Mesa, the main oil and gas driller in the state.

After the July 24 security guard confrontation, where Foster had handled the Texas landowners’ response, Boyle called Justin Wilks. She said she told him she could not work with Foster and that his public statements on the confrontation could hurt the efforts of other private property owners to get a trespass bill passed.

“They had become the boogeyman,” Boyle said.

In January, Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League said Foster told him he was not working on the trespass bill. Instead Suzanne Budge, who had worked closely with Boyle on her oil and gas legislation the year before, was the lobbyist for the Wilkses.

Foster is still listed as the lobbyist for DF Development, a Wilks company. He declined comment for this report, as did Budge.

Budge signed her name to a list of 33 Idaho Property Rights Coalition members — the main group that sought the bill. But there, she represented the Idaho Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association and the National Federation of Independent Business.

Budge sat and conferred with Gary Allen, a Boise attorney who helped present the legislation, during the bill’s House and Senate committee hearings. She never testified before either committee.

Attorney Kahle Becker, who described himself as a sportsman, filed several public records requests seeking to learn who paid Allen, who reportedly drafted the legislation.

On the day that the House cleared the way for the bill’s final passage, Allen released a letter saying he worked with Boyle and the Senate sponsor Mark Harris, R-Soda Springs. He also registered as a lobbyist for the Idaho Property Rights Coalition.

Becker said the earlier lack of transparency made critics like him skeptical. And, he said, the Wilkses’ role was larger than it seemed because of Budge.

“She was at the center of all of it,” he said.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker