Billionaires snapping up land, redrawing old boundaries across West
IDAHO CITY, Idaho - The Wilks brothers grew up in a goat shed, never finished high school and built a billion-dollar fracking business from scratch.
So when the brothers, Dan and Farris, bought a vast stretch of mountain-studded land in southwest Idaho, it was not just an investment, but a sign of their good fortune.
“Through hard work and determination - and they didn’t have a lot of privilege - they’ve reached success,” said Dan Wilks’ son, Justin.
The purchase also placed the Wilkses high on the list of well-heeled landowners who are buying huge parcels of America. In the past decade, private land in the United States has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few. Today, just 100 families own about 42 million acres across the country, a 65,000-mile expanse, according to the Land Report, a magazine that tracks large purchases. Researchers at the magazine have found that the amount of land owned by those ?100 families has jumped 50% since 2007.
Much of that land stretches from the Rocky Mountains down into Texas, where, for some, commercial forests and retired ranches have become an increasingly attractive investment.
Battles over private and public land have been a defining part of the West since the 1800s, when the federal government began doling out free acres to encourage expansion. For years, fights have played out between private individuals and the federal government, which owns more than half of the region.
But now, with even wealthier buyers purchasing even larger parcels, the battle lines have shifted. Many local residents see these new owners as a threat to a way of life beloved for its easy access to the outdoors, and they complain that property they once saw as public is being taken away from them.
The Wilkses, who now own some 700,000 acres across several states, have become a symbol of the out-of-touch owner. In Idaho, as their property has expanded, the brothers have closed trails and hired armed guards to patrol their acres, blocking and stymying access not only to their private property but also to some publicly owned areas. This has drawn ire from Idahoans who have hiked and hunted in those hills for generations.
The Wilks brothers see what they are doing as a duty. God had given them much, Justin said. In return, he said, “we feel that we have a responsibility to the land.”
Some of the new owners have been welcomed. The cable magnate John Malone, for instance, has been praised by the Nature Conservancy for his family’s conservation efforts, and other buyers have helped to clean up trails and restore pristine acres.
The arrival of this new class of landholders comes as the region is experiencing the fastest population boom in the country, which is driving up housing prices and the cost of living and leaving many residents fearful of losing their culture and economic stability.
In Idaho, Rocky Barker, a retired columnist for the Idaho Statesman, has called the conflict a “clash between two American dreams,” pitting the nation’s respect for private property rights against the notion of a beauty-rich public estate that has been set aside for the enjoyment of all.
The clash, he said, is part of a larger transformation of the region - from an economy rooted in extraction to one based on recreation; from a working-class culture to more moneyed one. “Big landowners,” he said, “are just another new force.”
A contentious gate
Tim Horting is among the people caught up in the debate. Horting, 58, a heavy-equipment salesman, grew up hiking in the woods north of Boise, a forest threaded by dirt routes that offer bird’s-eye views of the state’s celebrated peaks. He learned the terrain from his father, who taught him to chop wood, gut deer and haul game home for dinner.
Horting and his wife, Kim, built a cabin in those woods in 2006, right by Boise Ridge Road, which led to a popular recreation area built mostly on public land. The Hortings said they wanted their grandchildren to grow up with a feel for rural life. “This is the whole reason I moved here,” Horting said. For years, he assumed the road was public, and he would guide his ATV up its steep ascent, his grandchildren in tow.
A generation of hikers, hunters and snowmobilers had done the same.
Then, in 2016, the Wilkses purchased 172,000 acres at the edge of Horting’s home. Soon, a gate went up on the road, and a sign was tacked to a nearby tree: “Warning. Private Property. No Trespassing.”
To Horting and others, Boise Ridge Road was now closed.
It was just the beginning. Gates with “private property” signs were going up across the region. In some places, the Wilkses’ road closings were legal. In other cases, it wasn’t clear. Road law is a tangled knot, and Boise County had little money to grapple with it in court. So the gates stayed up.