Reprinted with Permission from the LEWISTOWN NEWS-ARGUS March 15, 2014
-This Land Is Our Land-
Central Montana Sportsmen petition to kibosh land exchange
Enough is enough.
That is how many Central Montana sportsmen feel about a pair of land exchanges in Central Montana.
Texas billionaire David Killam’s proposed land exchange with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation that surfaced last month may have been withdrawn, but another land exchange possibility looms that has some hunting enthusiasts concerned.
A group of sportsmen called the Central Montana Hunters for Public Access have come out of the woodwork to try and prevent another land swap.
Central Montana Resource Advisory Council member Jason Birdwell along with Fish, Wildlife and Parks Citizens Advisory Council member Doug Krings and former Fish, Mark Schwomeyer and Wildlife Commissioner Ron Moody are four of the founding members of the group. Together, they have created a petition that asks the Montana office of the Bureau of Land Management to -cease any effort or involvement in any land exchange proposal that would result in the loss of public ownership and management control of what is known as the Durfee Hills BLM Land Parcels located in southern Fergus County.-
The Durfee Hills is a 3,000 acre in holding of BLM land in the Litle Snowies that is completely surrounded by property owned by the Texas billionaire brothers Dan and Farris Wilks. The brothers are in talks with the BLM to exchange parcels of land in Blaine County and Fergus County so they will have complete wnership of the Durfee Hills area. An effort to reach the Wilks brothers to comment on this issue was unsuccessful.
According to Birdwell, Durfee Hills and the surrounding area, hosts the second-largest elk herd in the state.
“The Durfee Hills has the best public land elk hunting I’ve seen”,- Birdwell said, “It’s a spectacular place.” Although the only way to get to the property is to fly there, recreational use of the area is increasing, as sportsmen are making their way there either by flying themselves or by hiring a commercial operator.
“This is becoming a premier hunting spot,”, Birdwell said. “There are people from all over who hunt at Durfee Hills.-”
Birdwell, who owns a plane, says that getting to hunting land by using a plane is not uncommon and ultimately not as expensive as people think. “Using aviation to access hunting grounds isn’t just for rich people”, Birdwell said. -“In Alaska, for example, it’s commonplace. In order to access the backcountry, you have to use a plane.-”
Creating a stir
Originally the petition started with a clipboard and handwritten signatures. Krings passed it around and quickly got more than 80 signatures. But once the petition was set up online, signatures started pouring in.-
“There are people from all corners of the state signing the petition”, Krings said. “The word has spread fast. There are all kinds of people wanting to get their hands on this.”
As of Friday morning, 643 people had signed the petition.
-“Signatures are from non-residents and residents alike”, Birdwell said. “People know how valuable this land is: They care about it.”
Moody said the petition has already exceeded expectations, and there is still time for signatures before Monday’s deadline. -“The petition is still growing”, Moody said. “We believe there is a chance we will break 1,000 signatures.-”
In order for a land exchange to be successful, both parties must agree that the land being exchanged is of equal or greater value. In this case, Birdwell said the land the Wilks brothers want to exchange for the Durfee Hills area does not compare.
-“The land in Blaine County that the Wilks brothers are proposing to trade isn’t anywhere near the quality of land and quality of elk hunting that the Durfee provides”, Birdwell said.
The earlier withdrawn DNRC land proposal ran into a similar hurdle. The Dana Ranch in the Devil’s Kitchen area of Cascade County was said to be a much greater elk hunting area than the X Hanging Diamond ranch area outside of Winifred.
From a hunting perspective, exchanging Durfee Hills for the Blaine County land would be a mistake, Krings said. “I am not opposed to land trades when they truly benefit the public, but I do not see the Wilks’ ever coming up with an available parcel that is as valuable as Durfee Hills”, Krings said.
BLM Central Montana District Manager Stan Benes, however, said the exchange is fair, and the public would benefit from having access to the land in Blaine County.
Benes said this is particularly the case for the parcel of land containing Bull Whacker Road.
Formerly known as part of the Anchor Ranch, the Bull Whacker Road parcel is 2,243 acres of private land north of the Missouri River, surrounded by the Missouri Breaks National Monument.
“The Bull Whacker Road parcel has some of the best sheep hunting and there is quite often an elk herd in that area, too”, Benes said. The exchange would also open up land to the public that is available by foot or by car, and it has reportedly garnered support from some members of the Friends of the Missouri Break National Monument.
Benes said BLM would like to get back this historic access and provide more easily accessible land to the public.
“Our priority as the BLM is to improve or increase public access to public land”, Benes said. -“This land exchange would get access back to land that used to be public and it would also allow new access to some places that have never been available to the public before.”
The land exchange would also provide the public with more access from Red Hill Road, Benes said, which runs from Lavina to Lewistown and connects to the Big Snowy mountains.
A difference in opinions
The petition is not just about keeping the Durfee Hills parcel of BLM land available to those wanting to fly out to the area.
In addition, the petition requests that BLM -move forward with the opening of an alternative road access to the Bullwhacker area of the Upper Missouri
Breaks National Monument with appropriate speed to re-establish public road access as soon as possible.
According to BLM Chief of Communications Melody Lloyd, however, this process is already in the works. -“We are already reviewing several alternatives”, Lloyd said.
More information on these alternatives will be made available to the public in the near future, Lloyd said, and no decisions will be made without consulting with the public. “The information that will help BLM land managers will be gathered and developed in an open and transparent public process”, Lloyd said.
Moody believes communication with the public could already be more transparent.
On Tuesday, conservation groups reportedly met in Bozeman to further discuss this proposed land exchange. The meeting, which was led by Public Land/Public Wildlife Council Chair Joe Perry, invited representatives from the BLM and FWP, but there were no representatives for the Central Montana Hunters for Public Access.
Moody said he refused to go to the meeting, as it should have been held in Lewistown. “The Lewistown community is most directly affected by both sides of this land swap”, Moody said.
“I will not travel to Bozeman to conduct Lewistown public business. Interested parties should come here so Lewistown people can participate.” Moody added that he is tired of people talking about this issue “behind the public’s back”.
The principle of it
The Wilks brothers reportedlyown 276,000 acres in seven Montana counties. Representatives of the Central Montana Hunters for Public Access are concerned about them essentially controlling the entire elk herd in the Little Snowies.
Even people such as Krings - who has not hunted in Durfee Hills - is worried about the exchange creating an elk monopoly.
“Not allowing this exchange could set a precedent”, Krings said, “even more than the withdrawal of the DNRC land exchange.”
According to Moody, current state law says -“a private landowner with a very large consolidated property can be effectively beyond the reach of the law when it comes to enforcement of state game laws.”
This is not, Moody believes, the direction Montana should be heading. -“We don’t want Montana to become North Texas”, Moody said.