Dan and Farris Wilks, a pair of wealthy Texas businessmen who own thousands of acres of Idaho land, have installed a gate across a Forest Service route through their property, prompting concerns over public land access.
In a video posted on the Idaho Wildlife Federation’s Facebook page late last week, director Brian Brooks showed a gate across a route he identified as Cabarton Road in Valley County, also known as Forest Service Road 645.
“That sign right there reads ‘Private road, no trespassing,’ and as you can see, the gate is closed and locked,” Brooks said in the video. “Which means that they exclusively control who gets to use the road and get to the public lands beyond.”
It wasn’t immediately clear where or when the gate was installed. The route, which runs northwest of Smiths Ferry between the Cascade and Emmett ranger districts of the Boise National Forest, crosses over a section of land belonging to DF Development, a Wilks brothers company. DF Development could not be reached for comment.
It’s not the first time the Wilkses have come under fire for blocking off Forest Service routes. Last September, an identical gate was installed across Forest Service Road 374 in Boise County, also called Boise Ridge Road. It’s still in place.
The public has access to the portions of both roads that are on Forest Service lands, but things become tricky when the routes pass over privately owned parcels. In some cases, the Forest Service has easement agreements for public use of the road, some of which are guaranteed in perpetuity.
Brooks told the Statesman that he’s inquiring with Boise National Forest administrators about maintenance records for the section of the road that traverses DF Development property.
Officials with the Cascade Ranger District told the Statesman they’re partnering with Valley County to sort through old property records and agreements.
“If an easement exists (for road 645), we haven’t found it yet,” district ranger Jake Strohmeyer said.
The Valley County Road Department could not be reached for comment.
Idaho legislation and land access
In his video, Brooks said the Wilks brothers lobbied for 2018 legislation that tightened trespass laws in Idaho and implemented harsh penalties for violating them.
“Such a large punishment for trespassing was bound to be used as leverage to keep people off of public roads and out of public lands where they have every right to be,” Brooks said. He also emphasized the importance of respecting private property.
Currently, the only legal recourse when a public right-of-way is blocked is for a government agency to pursue criminal charges. Brooks said many rural counties like Valley and Boise simply don’t have the funds or staffing to pursue those legal cases. In March, Brooks asked the Idaho Attorney General’s Office to review the Boise Ridge Road case after the Idaho Wildlife Federation found maintenance records for the route that Brooks said establish it as a public right-of-way.
The AG’s office told Brooks the case is out of its jurisdiction.
Early this year, the Idaho Wildlife Federation introduced state legislation that would’ve given the public the option to file a civil lawsuit in instances where public routes are blocked. The bill died in committee.
The popularity of Brooks’ video suggests serious concern over access issues. The video was shared on Facebook more than 5,000 times as of Wednesday morning, and more than 500 people had commented.