In 2012, Montanans were introduced to two relatively unknown billionaire brothers from Texas who were in the process of purchasing hundreds of thousands of acres of ranch land in Montana.
The Wilks brothers, Farris and Dan — now the second-largest landowners in the state — had made their fortune selling their company Frac Tech, one of the first large hydraulic fracturing companies in the country, at the height of the oil boom, in a deal that was reportedly worth $3.2 billion.
One of their most expensive ranch purchases that year was the famous 62,000-acre N Bar Ranch, located in the Little Snowy Mountains, a small range in central Montana about 25 miles southeast of Lewistown, for which they paid $45 million.
The N Bar Ranch surrounds Bureau of Land Management public inholdings, including the fabled 2,700-acre Durfee Hills, part of a larger public inholding including state land that totals more than 5,000 acres. At the time of the ranch purchase, there were rumors that the Wilkses were intent on trying to secure ownership of the Durfees through a land exchange with the BLM.
Film to screen in Billings
“The Durfees” will show at the Art House Cinema & Pub, 109 N. 30th St., Tuesday night at 7. Tickets are $5 and doors open at 6. Woods will be in attendance to introduce the film and stay after for a short Q & A with the audience. Also, a Mystery Ranch Metcalf backpack, valued at $525, will be raffled off to one lucky viewer
Turns out, the rumor mill was correct. In 2014, the Wilkses proposed a trade with the BLM that included the public Durfee Hills parcel and 11 other BLM parcels landlocked within the Wilkses’ holdings. In exchange, they offered property in Blaine and Fergus counties.
But, here’s the thing about the Durfee Hills: they have some of the best elk habitat and hunting in the state of Montana. And although they are landlocked, inaccessible by road, many hunters make it to the public land by chartering a helicopter or single-engine plane.
When the Wilks brothers proposed a land swap, the public, both hunters who love the Durfees and others who are concerned about public land transfers and sell-offs, took a stand.
This fight to protect the Durfee Hills from privatization is the subject of a new film produced by Elliott Woods, a journalist and hunter who lives in Livingston. Although he is a writer by trade, having covered stories all over the world for various magazines, he recognized that film is one of the best ways to reach the most people.
And so, in November of 2015, he set out to make a film about the Durfees and the people working to protect the land, and to shine a light on national efforts by some people in the Republican Party to sell off and privatize public lands.
“This is citizen journalism, which I don’t usually get to do,” Woods said. “I wanted to bring attention to the people and the place that I care most deeply about. And from the beginning, this looked like a pretty bad deal for the public.”
It is the debut film of his media company, Mission Montana. The film follows Doug Krings of Lewistown and his 12-year-old daughter, Emma, on her first elk hunt in the Durfee Hills. It also documents the activities of many public lands hunters and advocates working to stop the BLM from authorizing the land transfer, as well as attempts by the Wilks brothers to fence wildlife out of the public land inholdings.
“The thrust of the film is about a few people who did not have the power or the wealth of the Wilks brothers, not even close, but were still able to marshal their forces in a very effective way,” Woods said. “I hope that is what the film will show, is that people can still make a difference, especially on the local level and when it affects them in their own backyards.”
The film was produced in collaboration with the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Traditional Bowhunters of Montana, 2 Bar J Productions, onXmaps and Vortex Optics.