The Access Issue

By Beacon Staff

Access has become the issue that dominates public land recreation. There was a time when that wasn’t so, a time when conservation hadn’t yet become popular in the Northern Rockies.

But that’s no longer the case.

Clear cutting is ancient history. Logging plans are sold to the public by virtue of the restorative effects “thinning” will have on the land. And a couple of decades ago the cowboys went in whole hog on high-intensity, short-duration grazing techniques that tout the healing effects on habitat.

Everyone’s a conservationist in the Northern Rockies these days. I wonder if there’s a large-scale landowner left in this country who hasn’t developed a restoration portfolio for their property. It’s all part of the value of the modern, large-scale ranch. It’s not just the food and fiber the land can produce. Access, recreation and solitude now play a crucial role in boosting land value.

That value has increased dramatically as folks who have generated wealth elsewhere decide to invest it for safe keeping in Montana real estate.

And that’s just fine. It’s their money and their land. But what’s not OK is when the increasing influence of private landowners is being used to cow public land agencies into making trades that may not be in the best interests of the public for whom those agencies should be working.

The BLM is considering a pretty important land swap in central Montana right now. The deal would exchange 12 BLM parcels south of Lewiston in the N Bar Ranch for a 2,200-acre parcel north of the Missouri River along Bullwhacker Road. That road once provided access to about 50,000 acres in the Missouri Breaks. Also included in the swap is another piece near Lewistown that would improve access to National Forest lands in the Big Snowy Mountains.

The owners of the N Bar are the Wilks brothers, Dan and Farris. If you haven’t heard of them yet, get accustomed to the name. The Texas fracking billionaires now own in the neighborhood of 292,000 acres of Montana, making them the largest private landowners in the state. The land they want, primarily a 2,700-acre parcel known as the Durfee Hills, is prime elk habitat. But since it’s landlocked by private land, the only way to hunt it is to fly in.

Bullwhacker Road once provided access to a big chunk of the Breaks. A previous owner sought to block public access, and, after the county attorney declared the road public, went to court. There a district court judge ruled in favor of the landowner. The county didn’t appeal the decision to the Montana Supreme Court, and since access advocates hadn’t signed on to the lawsuit, they were unable to make their own appeal.

It was a lesson hard learned. The district courts in Montana have a spotty record when it comes to access issues. Lower court judges failed miserably on the Stream Access Law in the last decade, having key decisions on the Bitterroot and Ruby rivers overturned by solid majorities in the Supreme Court.

It might be easy to paint the Durfee Hills/Bullwhacker swap as a win-win. The landowners get to consolidate their holdings, while the public gets back into the Breaks. Maybe. But there are reasons to be cautious. For starters, it’s never a good thing for public land managers to encourage landowners to block historical access so they can use those locked gates as leverage to get ownership of public land elsewhere.

Secondly, if the Durfee Hills are traded away, the public will lose access to, and any semblance of management control over, the herd of 4,000 elk that roams there. The herd is the second largest in Montana, and without the Durfee Hills, it will essentially be private.

Access groups offer an alternative: punch a new road into the Breaks bypassing the BullWhacker dispute, and keep the Durfee Hills public. For more information about the proposed swap, visit www.blm.gov/mt or www.plwa.org.

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