Who Gets to Own the West?

snowy creek full of ice and trees

This article complains that private landowners won’t open their land to the public in Idaho, a state in which about 70 percent of all land already belongs to the public, but is mostly controlled by Washington. Idaho has the fourth highest percent of such land of all 50 states. In comparison about 4 percent of Texas’ land is public and about 1.5 percent is controlled by the feds.

 

 As small Idaho landowners surrounded on three sides by public land, we know that the federal agencies and courts have increasingly denied the public, ranchers and adjoining private landowners access to public forests. Why? Because they share environmental assumptions that since the early 1970’s have become so widely-held as to be considered common “knowledge”. These opinions often have little or no basis in empirical (scientific) evidence, and they reflect political, bureaucratic and academic agendas. Examples include hostility to cattle grazing, logging, hunting, and motorized vehicles. These beliefs see virtually all human activity as harmful; some are tolerated while others are increasingly prohibited.

 

If the public objects to its shrinking access – as it should – its ire should be directed towards the tangled rules of multiple agencies attempting to manage the same resources, the federal courts, and decision-making systems that can take years to consider simple requests. However well-intentioned, these have reduced access, and are harming the agencies’ own environmental objectives. Instead of taking away the property rights of private landowners who all together only own 28 percent of Idaho, the public should join with landowners, ranchers and elected representatives to insist that our own public agencies create roads and rules that let the public use its own public land.

 

That is what was intended when those lands were set aside for the public good. The real ownership dilemma is that, long after statehood and the development of local government, most of Idaho is “owned” and run by Washington instead of Idaho’s own agencies, as common sense would dictate.

 

NOTE: this article was originally published to The New York Times on June 22, 2019. It was written by Julie Turkewitz.

 

A new group of billionaires is shaking up the landscape.

 

IDAHO CITY, Idaho — The Wilks brothers grew up in a goat shed, never finished high school and built a billion-dollar fracking business from scratch.

So when the brothers, Dan and Farris, bought a vast stretch of mountain-studded land in southwest Idaho, it was not just an investment, but a sign of their good fortune.

“Through hard work and determination — and they didn’t have a lot of privilege — they’ve reached success,” said Dan Wilks’s son, Justin.

The purchase also placed the Wilkses high on the list of well-heeled landowners who are buying huge parcels of America. In the last decade, private land in the United States has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few. Today, just 100 families own about 42 million acres across the country, a 65,000-square-mile expanse, according to the Land Report, a magazine that tracks large purchases. Researchers at the magazine have found that the amount of land owned by those 100 families has jumped 50 percent since 2007.

Much of that land stretches from the Rocky Mountains down into Texas, where, for some, commercial forests and retired ranches have become an increasingly attractive investment.

Battles over private and public land have been a defining part of the West since the 1800s, when the federal government began doling out free acres to encourage expansion. For years, fights have played out between private individuals and the federal government, which owns more than half of the region.

But now, with wealthier buyers purchasing even larger parcels, the battle lines have shifted. Many local residents see these new owners as a threat to a way of life beloved for its easy access to the outdoors, and they complain that property that they once saw as public is being taken away from them.

The Wilkses, who now own some 700,000 acres across several states, have become a symbol of the out-of-touch owner. In Idaho, as their property has expanded, the brothers have shuttered trails and hired armed guards to patrol their acres, blocking and stymying access not only to their private property, but also to some publicly owned areas. This has drawn ire from everyday Idahoans who have hiked and hunted in those hills for generations.

The Wilks brothers see what they are doing as a duty. God had given them much, Justin said. In return, he said, “we feel that we have a responsibility to the land.”

Some of the new owners have been welcomed. The cable magnate, John Malone, for instance, has been praised by the Nature Conservancy for his family’s conservation efforts, and other buyers have helped to clean up trails and restore pristine acres.

The arrival of this new class of landholders comes as the region is experiencing the fastest population boom in the country, which is driving up housing prices and the cost of living and leaving many residents fearful of losing their culture and economic stability.

In Idaho, Rocky Barker, a retired columnist for The Idaho Statesman, has called the conflict a “clash between two American dreams,” pitting the nation’s respect for private property rights against the notion of a beauty-rich public estate set aside for the enjoyment of all.

The clash, he said, is part of a larger transformation of the region — from an economy rooted in extraction to one based on recreation; from a working class culture to a more moneyed one. “Big landowners,” he said, “are just another new force.”

The Gate

Tim Horting is among the people caught up in the debate. Mr. Horting, 58, a heavy equipment salesman, grew up hiking in the woods north of Boise, a forest threaded by dirt routes that offer views of the state’s celebrated peaks. He learned the terrain from his father, who taught him to chop wood, gut deer and haul game home for dinner.

Mr. Horting and his wife, Kim, built a cabin in those woods in 2006, right by Boise Ridge Road, which led to a popular recreation area built mostly on public land. The Hortings said they wanted their grandchildren to grow up with a feel for rural life. “This is the whole reason I moved here,” Mr. Horting said. For years, he assumed the road was public, and he would guide his ATV up its steep ascent, his grandchildren in tow.

A generation of hikers, hunters and snowmobilers had done the same.

Man dressed in camo hunting in jeep car in winder snow sunrise
Many roads near Tim Horting’s home are now closed. Credit: Max Whittaker for The New York Times

 

orange gate blocks off visitors snowy forest tall trees sunrise
A forest road is gated off by the Wilkses’ company, DF Development. Credit: Max Whittaker for The New York Times

 

Then, in 2016, the Wilkses purchased 172,000 acres at the edge of Mr. Horting’s home. Soon, a gate went up on the road, and a sign was tacked to a nearby tree: “Warning. Private Property. No Trespassing.”

To Mr. Horting and others, Boise Ridge Road was now closed.

It was just the beginning. Gates with “private property” signs were going up across the region. In some places, the Wilkses’ road closings were legal. In other cases, it wasn’t clear. Road law is a tangled knot, and Boise County had little money to grapple with it in court. So the gates stayed up.

The problem, said Mr. Horting, “is not the fact that they own the property. It’s that they’ve cut off public roads.”

“We’re being bullied,” he added. “We can’t compete and they know it.”

The Owners

In recent years, longtime timber and fossil fuel investors have been joined by newer types of buyers in the region.

Brokers say the new arrivals are driven in part by a desire to invest in natural assets while they are still abundant, particularly amid a fear of economic, political and climate volatility.

“There is a tremendous underground, not-so-subtle awareness from people who realize that resources are getting scarcer and scarcer,” said Bernard Uechtritz, a real estate adviser.

Among the nation’s top landowners are Mr. Malone, with 2.2 million acres in New Mexico, Colorado and other states; the media mogul Ted Turner, with two million acres in Montana, Nebraska and elsewhere; Peter Buck, a founder of Subway; Charles and David Koch, who run cattle outside of Lubbock, Tex.; and Jeff Bezos, who operates his space company from a West Texas outpost. William Bruce Harrison, the scion to an oil fortune, now owns 19 mountains in Colorado.

In the intermountain West, the purchases come amid a population boom that has exacerbated local concerns about the loss of space and culture. Last year, Idaho and Nevada were the fastest growing states in the nation, followed closely by Utah, Arizona and Colorado.

These new buyers have become a symbol of a bigger problem: The gentrification of the interior West.

In 2018, more than 20,000 Californians arrived in Idaho; home prices around Boise also jumped 17 percent. This has meant not just new subdivisions and microbreweries, but also packed schools, crowded ski trails and heightened anxiety among teachers, plumbers and others, who are finding that they can no longer afford a first home.

When Stan Kroenke, the owner of the Los Angeles Rams, purchased a vast Texas ranch in 2016, he sent eviction notices to dozens of people with homes around a lake, some of whom were retirees with little money for a move. At the time, his representatives said he was returning the shoreline to a more natural state.

The Wilkses

The Wilks brothers, the sons of a bricklayer, grew up outside Cisco, Tex., a town of fewer than 4,000 people where their father was the head of a conservative church called the Assembly of Yahweh.

At first, the brothers founded a masonry company. In 2001, seeing a business opportunity, they began building fracking equipment, just as an oil-and-gas boom took off. A decade later, they sold Frac Tech for a reported $3.5 billion.

This has allowed them to donate generously to causes they believe in, including right-wing media outlets, Senator Ted Cruz’s White House run and President Trump’s re-election bid. It has also allowed them to buy enormous parcels, particularly in Montana, where they are prolific donors to local politicians, and in Idaho, where they’ve hired lobbyists to protect their interests.

In Montana, they own some 300,000 acres, and have built several homes and a private airport on a property called N Bar ranch. Today, they live mostly in Texas.

Justin Wilks said they had shuttered their Idaho acres to protect them, after years of unchecked snowmobiling and camping had ruined much of the landscape.

“We want to be good neighbors,” Mr. Wilks said. “I know some people think we haven’t been, just because we haven’t let them freely roam across our property as they saw fit. But I’ll also offer: Do you want me camping in your front yard?”

Hidden hunting tree camera on brown snowy winter tree bark
A camera trained on a closed road on the Wilkses’ land. Credit: Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Conservation

The concept of private property is embedded in the nation’s framework, and many large landowners cite this as the foundation for their holdings.

“John earned everything that he’s made,” said Rye Austin, who leads the land preservation foundation created by John Malone’s family. “If he wants to purchase and own land, we live in a capitalist country, why shouldn’t someone be able to buy land? That’s the whole concept of private property.”

Many landowners are engaged in conservation and have entered into easements that limit future development on their parcels, and also provide them with significant tax breaks.

But setting aside land for conservation has not always staved off criticism.

In Idaho, the Wilks brothers did more than gate a few roads. They also revoked road-use contracts that propped up the region’s multimillion-dollar snowmobile industry, shut down hunting on their land and told timber companies to pull crews from the area. About 100 people lost their jobs.

No one claimed that those actions were illegal, but they heightened fears that local residents were losing control of the region. A 2017 video of a roadside argument between an armed Wilks guard and a local ATV rider traveled quickly around the state.

Afterward, the Wilks family hired a lobbyist to push for a law that would stiffen penalties for trespass. The bill passed.

Old snowy BoCo Sluice Box store in Idaho City
The BoCo Sluice Box store in Idaho City, a jumping-off point for many people recreating in the Boise National Forest. Credit: Max Whittaker for The New York Times

 

Snowmobiles racing along the snow 3 people grabbing and riding intense weather
Tiffany, left, and Ron Martinez unload snowmobiles at a trailhead. New gates in the region now limit where they can go. Credit: Max Whittaker for The New York Times

 

Amid the dispute, some residents emailed the Wilkses, asking permission to cross their property. They were surprised to receive a response suggesting they first visit a popular right-wing website and share their opinions of its content.

The site, PragerU, features videos supporting the hard-lined conservative views of personalities like Ben Shapiro and Dinesh D’Souza. The portal has been heavily financed by the Wilkses.

Mr. Horting, a lifelong conservative, was “insulted,” he said. “I’m not going to give my political views to use your land.”

Soon, the brothers were the subject of articles in The Idaho Statesman. County prosecutors began investigating the road closings and explored litigation.

In a series of peace offerings, the brothers reopened access to some snowmobile trails and restarted some logging. More recently, they opened the gate on Boise Ridge Road and removed the No Trespass signs. Some people in the area, including the Valley County recreation director, Larry Laxson, applauded the effort. “They did a lot of things wrong when they came to Valley County,” he said, “but it’s getting better.”

Mr. Wilks said he was trying to resolve access issues with frustrated neighbors. But ultimately, he said, “our Heavenly Father has blessed us with lots of gifts,” and his family’s priority was to protect them.

Author:
Ranching, wildlife management, finance, oil & gas, real estate development and management.
Comments
  • For the first 5+ years of owning my small ranch, I dealt with “hunters”, hikers, and treasure hunters who believed it was their right to continue to use my ranch as they have for years. Also, there was a county road that ran 3 miles into my ranch that served no purpose (except as a dead end road to dump trash, target practice, park and climb or cut my fencing to hike or hunt, and poaching). After 12+ years of dealing with this, the county finally closed the road to nowhere and dropped the easement.

    I understand people’s frustration with little to no open country to use and enjoy, but there is always a few that abuse the privilege. Trash, cut fencing, open gates, poaching, not staying on roads, drinking and drugs…… I’ve had several dangerous encounters. Now the word is out…..don’t get on that crazy SOB’s ranch. Handlin

    • I know lots of people who want access on other people’s land, but not one of them would let me pitch a tent in their back yard.

      Thanks for commenting.

  • Where I come from we have a word for a “country” who “claims title” to 60% of the land. We call it Communism.

    Note the parentheses around “claims title.” That is because it would be erroneous to say “owns” because government can, and does, not “own” anything. It does not possess anything that it did not take from someone at the point of a gun.

    • Hello Gunny,

      Today it’s forgotten that the constitution says that the government may not own land except in limited circumstances. Later, federal ownership was supposed to be temporary as land was settled. That happened with the Republic of Texas’ land, which Texas retained when the Texas Republic – a sovereign nation – joined the US, then sold over the next 100-years. Out West was another story: these areas were purchased (Louisiana Purchase, Alaska Purchase)) or seized (Mexican & Indian wars) by the federal government. By default, the feds had to run all this real estate.

      Mark Twain said that “There’s not a square inch of the planet in the hands of its rightful owners.” In my opinion, public land will – and should – remain public land. Whatever the pros, cons and hypotheticals of this reality, we should insist on good public access. And good management: States have done a better management job with their own public forests, as shown in this study by PERC (The Property and Environmental Research Center)

      Thanks for commenting.

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