Letters from the West

Texas billionaires limit snowmobile access on Idaho land, reverse course on logging

A snowmobiler plays on West Mountain overlooking Cascade Reservoir accessed by Valley County’s snowmobile groomed trails which will be shut off by new owners of the private forest there.
A snowmobiler plays on West Mountain overlooking Cascade Reservoir accessed by Valley County’s snowmobile groomed trails which will be shut off by new owners of the private forest there. Idaho Statesman file

Logging companies were abruptly told in August to pull their crews off of 172,000 acres of private land that for decades was owned by Boise Cascade.

But a representative of new owner DF Development LLC, apparently affiliated with Wilks Development and owned by two Texas billionaire brothers who have been buying land across the West, told loggers in an email late Friday that they’d be able to get back into the woods.

“We will try to get operations up and going as soon as we can,” the company said in the email.

The email came after the Statesman reported earlier Friday that at least four logging companies have been forced to lay off around 100 loggers and truckers, causing economic upheaval in Valley, Boise and Gem counties. The new owners also have written Valley County, terminating its leases to roads on the land that are critical access to its popular West Mountain snowmobiling trails.

“The new owners, DF Development LLC, intend to continue forest management operations, but in order to do that we need to get everyone insured, contracts revamped and accounting set up so everyone can be protected and get a paycheck,” a local representative of the new owners wrote in the email to the loggers.

So far, representatives of the Wilks brothers have repeatedly declined to answer telephone inquiries by the Statesman about why they shut down logging and terminated the road leases.

“Our lease was strictly for snow grooming,” said Gordon Cruickshank, a Valley County commissioner. “Most of it is access to the national forest.”

DF Development filed the deed to the land on Aug. 23. For Jerry Ward, owner of the Cougar Mountain Lodge in Smiths Ferry, the impact on his winter business catering to snowmobilers and cross-country skiers could be huge.

“The whole thing doesn’t sound good,” Ward said Friday. “It will just ruin this area.”

For loggers, truckers and the businesses that revolve around their work, the effects already are being felt. Pat Carlock, owner of C. Carlock Logging in Ola, said he was told to stop cutting trees and to get all of the wood already cut and stacked out by the end of the month.

“We already have moved our stuff out,” he said.

We’re pleased they’re going to get us back out in the woods.

Pat Carlock, owner of C. Carlock Logging

With little timber coming off federal land in Southern Idaho, loggers have had to depend on private land like the 172,000-acre tract that Potlatch Corp. sold earlier this year to Southern Pine Plantations, which in turn sold it to DF Development last month. The lands are scattered across Valley, Boise and Adams counties and intermingled with Boise National Forest, Payette National Forest and Idaho state endowment lands, along with other nonindustrial private lands.

The Emmett lumber mill owned by Woodgrain Millwork of Fruitland is expected to reopen later this month and was looking for timber, Carlock said. The loss of a critical private supply could put pressure on the Boise National Forest to fast-track efforts to salvage trees killed by the massive Pioneer Fire, which has burned around Lowman for the past month.

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 Valley County $832,000 in sales.

The Aug. 24 letter to the Valley County Commissioners was signed by Jimmy Williams, a representative of DF Development LLC. Williams used Geographic Land Solutions, a real estate company in Cisco, Texas, as his return address.

He did not return telephone calls from the Statesman seeking comment.

A Statesman story published Aug. 25 on the land sale got national attention.

The Statesman sought comment from Robert B. Early, of Cisco, Texas, whose name was listed on the deed as a representative of DF Development. Early is the chief financial officer for the company owned by Farris and Dan Wilks, who are the Texas founders of Frac-Tech Services, a hydraulic fracturing and oil-field service company that sold to a Singapore company for $3.5 billion in 2011.

Early’s assistants at Wilks Development, also in Cisco, Texas, and assistants for Kyle Wilks, the son of Farris Wilks, who runs the development company, would not answer Statesman questions.

The Wilks have been buying as much as 300,000 acres of land in Montana over several years. They bought 38,000 acres of land in Idaho County, completing the deals in 2015, and closed access to local residents for hunting and recreation, The Lewiston Tribune reported.

The North Idaho experience had Idahoans worried about what the plan might be for land that had remained open to the public by Boise Cascade, Spokane-based Potlatch and Southern Pine Plantations.

What do the Wilks brothers plan to do with the 172,000 acres? The Texans might simply have bought the land for investment purposes, to develop into a private hunting preserve, or, perhaps, like Western Pacific Timber and its mercurial former billionaire owner Tim Blixseth, might be interested in trading the land within the Payette River corridor and 10,000 acres on the back side of West Mountain.

Blixseth was prepared to trade 115,000 acres of the land as part of a complicated plan he had before he left the company.

The Wilks brothers were among the biggest supporters of Sen. Ted Cruz, giving a pro-Cruz political action committee $15 million. Cruz proposed selling off public lands.

We will try to get operations up and going as soon as we can.

An unnamed local representative of the new owners

Farris Wilks, in an interview with the Great Falls, Mont., Tribune earlier this year., said the brothers have been trying to consolidate land at one of their ranches in Montana by doing a trade of their own with the Bureau of Land Management.

So far, the BLM has rejected the Montana trade idea.

The local representative of the new owners, whose name was not on the email obtained by the Idaho Statesman, assured loggers they would be working in the forest again soon.

“Things are going to be different and we are diligently working to stand up the tree farm,” he wrote. “I know everyone has a lot of questions, but let’s start here.”

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker