If you want to know why ordinary Idahoans view the idea of transferring federal lands to state ownership with such skepticism, start with what’s going on in Adams and Valley counties.
There, 172,000 acres of forest land formerly available to hunters, snowmobilers and four-wheelers is now off limits.
As the McCall Star-News’ Tom Grote noted, Idaho Fish and Game sent out 305 letters to people who had controlled hunt permits, informing them access had been denied. Meanwhile, Valley County’s leases to groom roads on the parcel for snowmobile trails have been canceled.
Explained the Idaho Statesman’s Rocky Barker, Potlatch Corp. – which allowed public access on these acres – sold them to Farris and Dan Wilks of Cisco, Texas, who are painting their fence posts orange.
This is one more hit for a local economy already buffeted by a hollowing out of its timber industry and setbacks at the Tamarack golf and ski resort.
The sealed off snowmobile trails alone were linked to $832,000 worth of business in Valley County, Barker reported. If four-wheelers also are forced to go somewhere else, the local economy’s losses will mount up.
But the Wilks brothers apparently feel no obligation to explain themselves. Barker can’t get his phone calls returned.
These Texas billionaires are the new face of private land ownership. Flush with a $3.5 billion profit they earned by selling their 70 percent interest in a fracking company to Temasek Holdings in Singapore, they’ve been on a buying binge.
With 500,000 acres as of last year, they now place 15th on the Land Report Magazine’s list of America’s largest landowners – just ahead of the J.R. Simplot family.
Among their acquisitions was 38,000 acres of land on the Joseph Plains in Idaho County. Earlier this year, Idaho County residents contended their access to the area, popular for hunting and recreation, had been sealed off.
In the past, landowners – such as Potlatch in Adams and Valley counties or the Hitchcock family and Robbins-France ranch in Idaho County – were benevolent toward their neighbors. They were part of the same social, economic and political fabric.
The Wilks brothers, on the other hand, are as distant from the everyday cares of Idahoans as the British aristocrats were from the colonists.
All of which ought to give pause to even the most enthusiastic advocate of transferring title of public lands from the federal government to the state of Idaho.
Nowhere will you find a study that suggests Idaho can afford to manage those lands without dipping deep into its scarce treasury or aggressively logging the forests – and hoping for the best on the timber markets. Most likely, the state would revert to its past behavior and begin liquidating.
When those lots come on the market, the Wilks boys no doubt will come calling.
Complain all you want about federal regulations and bureaucracies. But as long as the sign at the gate reads U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management, nobody is going to block your entry.
And if there’s something going on you don’t like, you can contact the local land manager – or even a congressional office.
Unlike this pair of Texas billionaires, they will return your phone call. – M.T.