People who love Idaho's outdoors are outraged about what some are calling the theft of tens of thousands of acres of public land.
Now the Idaho Wildlife Federation says they have proof that gates installed by the billionaire Wilks brothers are illegal... And one of Idaho's top sheriffs says he thinks the growing conflict will result in people being killed.
Since the Wilks brothers started purchasing Idaho forest land, no trespassing signs and orange gates dot the landscape .
Through painstaking research, Brian Brooks found deeds dating back to 1922 that say two sections of Boise Ridge road, now gated by the Wilks company DF Development, should legally be open to the public forever.
Brooks says he's very confident the road is public, but he still wouldn't go there. "I would not go on that road right now," Brooks said. "It is still signed, and the Wilks brothers still think they own it, and if I go there they could sue me, and even if I win I can't recover my legal fees which could be upwards of twenty thousand bucks."
Brooks says Idaho's laws against illegally blocking access to public land are nothing more than a slap on the wrists of out of state billionaires like the Wilks brothers.
"Say you get a fine for fifty or hundred bucks. Well, they just got exclusive access to ten thousand acres for a year, which would be a ten million dollar property. So it's extremely lucrative to just block off land and wait to see if you get prosecuted."
Brooks says this is just one of dozens of examples of the Wilks brothers and others illegally blocking access to private property.
"The road by Horsethief Reservoir, the road to Fish Lake up by New Meadows, the road to Corral Creek Reservoir by Cascade, there are roads up in the Cabartan, there's roads over by Council, and these are just roads blocked by the Wilks's.... it's all over the place."
On a recent trip to Southeast Idaho we found signs and a fence blocking access to the Teton River, clearly on public land. We alerted the Teton County Sheriff, who investigated and sent Teton County Bridge and Road to remove the signs and the fence. But Brooks says most counties don't have the resources to deal with the rapidly growing number of these cases, and the president of the Idaho Sheriffs Association says, under current law, the situation will just get worse.
"I think it looks grim," said Sheriff Kieran Donahue. "I think you're setting a dangerous, dangerous precedent." Donahue says this is not just a matter of public access, it's a matter of life and death. "The fact that someone's life could be taken over as simple a thing that you don't know you're on private property, that keeps us up at night."
Donahue is disturbed by scenes like this one, in which an armed security guard working for the Wilks brothers confronts a private citizen for simply stopping on a road that is legally open to the public.
"What gives that private security officer the right to try to enforce something like that?" asked Donahue. They don't have standing, and they're armed, and they're going to be talking to people in the state of Idaho who are armed; there are a lot of people in the state of Idaho who carry arms, and you're just building a crescendo that is going to come to a cataclysmic conclusion in my opinion."
Brooks' organization the Idaho Wildlife Federation is pushing for legislation that would give citizens the right to sue people who illegally block access to public lands, but Donahue doesn't think that's the solution.
"The people who are blocking those roads have a lot more money than the average citizen," said Donahue. "So for the average citizen to go fight that in court civilly, they're not going to have enough money to do that. But criminally is another matter."
While brooks will continue pushing for a civil remedy, he agrees criminal penalties for blocking access to public land should be at least as harsh as the new penalties for trespassing.
"So on the third time you're trespassing it's a fifteen thousand dollar fine, and it's a felony and you can go to jail. Maybe it's time to start looking at those kind of solutions for people like the Wilks brothers.
Both Brooks and Donahue say they will push for improved legislation during the next session.
In a letter to the Forest Service, DF Development says it may be willing to remove the gates, if the Forest Service ensures protection of the private land where Boise Ridge Road runs.
We have made repeated attempts to contact the Wilks brothers, but none of our calls have been returned.