Those who reflexively find private ownership and control freeing and liberating, and government control and ownership the reverse, will find a conundrum here.
About 305 hunters, some Idahoans and some from out of state, were eagerly anticipating the opening of hunting season to start tracking down elk in certain southern parts of Idaho backcountry, pieces of which are publicly-owned, but much of which was long owned by Potlatch Corporation and Boise Cascade. Those companies generally did not object, though they could have, to the hunters being there or pursuing game.
Recently, however, Potlatch sold many of their large tracts, reported to consist of about 172,000 acres, to DF Development, a Texas property development firm led by members of the Wilks family. The Wilkses have been, as Rocky Barker reported in the Idaho Statesman, “buying up land all over the West, and closing off much of the access to those lands. . . . The Wilkses are closing off the timberlands to hunting and other recreation. They already canceled leases with Valley County to maintain roads that provided access to snowmobile trails on public land.”
The hunters, who were left with little area to hunt, were stunned. But there wasn’t much they could do. Local communities around Adams and Valley counties and their leaders were likewise left with few options. They faced the loss of a big part of the outdoors attractions they depend on to bring people to the area; many places where people have enjoyed the backcountry now were off limits. And with the loss of access comes significant loss of revenue to local businesses.
That Valley-Adams buy was the second really large Idaho lands purchase by the Wilkses. In 2015 they were reported to have purchased 38,000 acres in Idaho County, and there too promptly cut off recreation access.
These are only a part of the family’s massive land buys around the West.
Attempts on the part of Idahoans, including private citizens and the Department of Fish and Game (which has tried to mediate), have had little success. Maybe the Wilkses may have figured Idahoans wouldn’t object, on political grounds.
They have been major multi-million dollar donors to the presidential campaign of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who was the top choice in Idaho’s presidential primary this year. Cruz has suggested that Texas, which (surprisingly given the size of the state) has almost no federal public lands, should be a public lands model for the nation. In 2014, Cruz proposed an amendment to a sportsman’s law capping the amount of federal lands in any one state, and forcing federal agencies to either give to the states or sell to the top bidder any overages. Late last year, he told the Review-Journal in Las Vegas, “I believe we should transfer as much federal land as possible back to the states and ideally back to the people.”
The point, as he explained it, was to maximize freedom.
Freedom for some, apparently those like the Wilks, but not for all. It’s a diminished freedom for the hunters and other recreationists who find that a decision by the new land owners – one that could have been made by previous owners, but wasn’t possibly in the interest of good will, has significantly cut their options.
As compared to publicly-owned lands where hunting, fishing and recreating may be regulated but still are broadly allowed.
Try applying all this to the formula of private=free, public=locked up, and you’ll quickly wrap yourself in pretzels. Or maybe the ideologues among us simply need to come up with new and more creative definitions for words like “freedom.”