Texas Billionaire Brothers Offer a Cautionary Tale for Public Lands

By Lucy Livesay and Andre Miller

Neal Herbert (National Park Service)

Farris and Dan Wilks, billionaire brothers from Texas, own hundreds of thousands of acres of land across the West and have a reputation for closing people out.

This August, the Wilks brothers purchased 172,000 acres of timberland in southern Idaho’s Valley County. The lands, which had traditionally been open to the public for hunting and recreation, closed with little warning one month later — in the midst of the controlled-hunt elk season. This disappointment came just weeks after the Wilks revoked Valley County’s leases to access roads to the popular public West Mountain snowmobiling trails.

As Valley County wrestles with dwindling logging jobs, outdoor recreation and tourism have offered some economic respite. A 2006 report from Headwaters Economics found that 500,000 snowmobilers visit Valley County on a good snow year, with more than 18,000 of those making the trip to West Mountain. If the Wilks continue to limit public access to snowmobiling trails this winter, Valley County could lose approximately $832,000 in sales.

This is hardly the only time that Idahoans have found new orange fence posts — indicating closed lands — and no explanation on property owned by the Wilks.

In recent years, the Wilks brothers have purchased and then closed off tens of thousands of acres across northern Idaho. Many of these acres were historically used by hunters, anglers, snowmobilers, and other outdoor enthusiasts.

Hunters are similarly frustrated in Montana, where the Wilks own approximately 300,000 acres of property.

Bureau of Land Management

The Wilks’ private land surrounds a 2,700 acre parcel of prime elk habitat and U.S. public land known as the Durfee Hills. Earlier this year, the Wilks brothers built nine miles of fence that illegally encroached onto public property. With reclamation currently underway, hunters worry that the construction will interfere with the peak of archery elk season.

The Wilks brothers offer a cautionary tale to all who enjoy access to the outdoors: hunters, snowmobilers, four-wheelers, hikers, and bikers alike.

An extreme movement associated with the likes of Ammon Bundy (who led armed standoff at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge) would like to see American public lands — owned by all of us — turned over to private landowners. Their message has even received some attention in the mainstream. During his bid for president, Senator Ted Cruz said, “I believe we should transfer as much federal land as possible back to the states and ideally back to the people.”

If the Wilks brothers are any indication, it’s easy to see what happens to recreational access if public lands end up in private hands.