Billionaires Buying Up Land In Idaho

Forestlands near Banks, Idaho.

One of the largest chunks of private land in Southern Idaho changed hands for the second time this year and the apparent new owners already have a reputation for shutting the public out.

Southern Pine Plantations, a private timberland investment company based in Macon, Ga., sold the 172,000 acres of timberlands. Those forests, primarily in Valley, Boise and Adams counties, are intermingled with Boise National Forest, Payette National Forest and Idaho state endowment lands, along with other nonindustrial private lands. The deed, which was filed in Valley County on Tuesday, lists D.F. Development LLC as the new owner with Robert Early as the contact at a mailing address in Cisco, Texas.

GOP Presidential Candidate Ted Cruz urges federal government to transfer most public land in west to states and private citizens at Boise State University in Idaho March 5 2016 (Rocky Barker)

I called Southern Pine Plantations, which confirmed the sale but would not reveal the buyer. So I did an Internet search of Robert B. Early, of Cisco, Texas, and found a story in the Fort Worth Star Telegram, one of the Statesman’s sister papers in McClatchy.

That story said Robert Early is the chief financial officer for Wilks Brothers. Farris and Dan Wilks are the west 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.

So I called the Wilks Development Corp., also in Cisco, Texas, which is run by Kyle Wilks, the son of Farris Wilks. I asked for Robert Early and got his assistant’s voicemail. Repeated calls Wednesday and Thursday have not gotten a response.

A Wilks Brothers purchase in Southern Idaho would be par for the course. 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 apparently closed access to local residents for hunting and recreation, the Lewiston Tribune reported.

The Tribune reported that, according to the Idaho County Assessor’s Office, the brothers started buying ranches in western Idaho County in 2008, worth a combined total of $2.4 million. The brothers did not talk to the Tribune.

After that report, Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson cited the Wilks’ purchase as an example of what would happen if the federal government sold off its public lands, like former presidential candidate Ted Cruz had proposed.

“All of a sudden, they denied access,” Simpson said of the Wilks brothers. “All of a sudden, people couldn’t access their favorite fishing hole or hunting ground.

Let me tell you why people live in Idaho. They live in Idaho because they love their public lands. They like access to them for hunting, for fishing, for recreation. Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson to Appropriations Interior and Environment subcommittee

A side note: The Wilks brothers were among the biggest supporters of Cruz, giving a pro-Cruz political action committee $15 million.

The timberland they apparently bought this week once belonged to Boise Cascade, which kept it open to the public. Potlatch, the Spokane-based timber company, sold it to Southern Pine Plantations in April for $114 million.

Prior to Potlatch acquiring these lands in 2007, they were owned by Western Pacific Timber and its mercurial former billionaire owner, Tim Blixseth. He bought the land in 2004 from Forest Capital Partners, which had bought it from Boise Cascade. Blixseth also kept it open to the public.

Blixseth told me in 2004 he wanted to trade the land within the Payette River corridor, and 10,000 acres on the back side of West Mountain. He said he was prepared to trade 115,000 acres of the land as part of a complicated plan he had.

But Blixseth, who was embroiled in controversy over his exclusive Yellowstone Club near Big Sky, Mont., had a lot of grand plans that never materialized. He was released from jail in Montana last month after serving 14 months on a contempt charge connected to the Yellowstone Club bankruptcy.

Even though the Wilks brothers have not talked to the Lewiston Tribune, Farris did do an interview with the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune earlier this year. The brothers have been trying to consolidate land at one of their ranches by doing a trade of their own with the Bureau of Land Management.

So far, the BLM has rejected the idea. But the brothers, in an act of good faith, allowed hunters and anglers access across their private land.

It’s a wonderful place to live. As they say, it’s one of the true last great places in the Lower 48. Farris Wilks about Montana to the Great Falls Tribune

Farris told the Great Falls Tribune that the brothers spend about four months of the year in Montana, and both are building new homes at the N Bar Ranch at Grass Range in Fergus County so they can spend more time in the state.

It’s their land, and they can do what they want. But their good-faith gesture in Montana could show they might be willing to open their land to public access in Idaho, perhaps under the Access Yes program managed by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

If they did, they might find Southern Idahoans welcoming their new neighbors.

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