The sale of a scenic 7,651-acre ranch at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains in north-central Wyoming will benefit local ranchers and farmers, recreationists, the City of Buffalo, State of Wyoming and others if a pending land exchange is approved.
Summerfield K. Johnston Jr., former chief executive of Coca-Cola Enterprises, purchased the Bull Creek Ranch five miles southwest of Buffalo with the intent of exchanging the deeded land for State of Wyoming trust lands adjacent to his Flying H Ranch.
The Flying H, which is near the small town of Big Horn, also sits at the base of the Bighorn Mountains. Johnston has wanted to acquire the state lands adjacent to the Flying H since purchasing that ranch in 1985.
The opportunity finally happened late last year when he acquired the Bull Creek Ranch, site of a proposed 280-acre reservoir by the State of Wyoming.
The previous owners of the Bull Creek Ranch, the Smith-Dow Trust, were not interested in having the reservoir on their ranch, but when they decided to sell the property, Johnston jumped at the opportunity knowing the purchase could pave the way for the land exchange, says Jason Crowder, an assistant director for the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments.
“Developing the reservoir on Bull Creek has been one of many identified positive attributes of the Bull Creek Ranch, and Mr. Johnston bought the ranch with the intention of the land exchange,” Crowder says. “If the exchange goes through, we view it as a win-win for everyone.”
The proposed reservoir would hold about 16,400 acre feet of water, which could be used by area ranchers and farmers for irrigation as well as the City of Buffalo to meet long-term municipal water needs.
Crowder says the reservoir would dramatically improve instream flows for the trout fishery in Clear Creek, which Bull Creek feeds. Additionally, he notes, if the state acquires the ranch, it would be open for public use, including hunting and fishing, while ranch and farm lands would be leased for grazing and hay production.
$14 million price tag
Mike Fraley, a ranch broker with Hall and Hall, which listed the property, says the Bull Creek Ranch is home to many wildlife species including elk and mule deer.
The ranch, one of the largest private holdings along the Bighorn Mountains between Buffalo and the Montana state line, was listed for $14 million, or $1,830 per deeded acre.
“It was a very strong sale, closer to the asking price than I was expecting,” Fraley says.
Bull Creek Ranch had been owned by the same families for nearly 100 years. Some members were intent on operating the property as a ranch, but others wanted to sell out.
“It was a hard decision for some of the family members because they wanted to keep the ranch, but the trustees finally determined to sell and divvy up proceeds,” Fraley says.
The purchase by Johnston also included 783 acres of State of Wyoming and 278 acres of Bureau of Land Management lease lands.
There are no structural improvements on the ranch.
Johnston, who goes by Skey, was raised on his family’s farm in Tennessee. His grandfather founded Coca-Coca Bottling Co., and his father was actively involved in the business.
Skey Johnston earned his fortune—estimated at approximately $1.1 billion by Forbes—while serving as chief executive officer and chairman of Coca-Cola Enterprises from 1991 to 2001.
Active in polo since the early 1950s, when he played for the University of Virginia, Johnston developed the internationally known Flying H Polo Club on his Big Horn, Wyo., ranch, and he also co-owns the Everglades Polo Club in Florida.
If the land exchange between the S.K. Johnston Jr. family and the State of Wyoming is approved, the Johnston family would acquire 2,271 acres of state trust lands adjacent to their ranch along the foot of the Bighorn Mountains near Big Horn, Wyo.
The state, in turn, would receive the 7,651-acre Bull Creek Ranch that Johnston purchased late last year to pave the way for the exchange.
This is only one piece of a highly complex puzzle, however.
“Since this would be a value-for-value exchange and there is a large discrepancy in acreage, the State of Wyoming is looking at including three or four other landowners in Sheridan County and one in Johnson County who have expressed interest in acquiring their state leases,” says Jason Crowder, an assistant director for the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments.
These landowners would acquire state trust lands adjacent to their ranches, and in exchange they would become part owners of the Bull Creek Ranch, Crowder says.
When the transaction is complete, the Johnston family would be paid the difference between the state trust land they acquired and the amount they paid for the Bull Creek Ranch.
“It’s a very complicated transaction,” Crowder says.
The Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners last August granted preliminary approval for the exchange.
In the coming months, appraisals of private ranch lands and state trust lands involved in the proposed transaction will take place, along with public hearings and comment periods.
“We’re hoping to have the transaction complete by late summer,” Crowder says.
Mike Fraley, a ranch broker with Hall and Hall, which listed the Bull Creek Ranch, says most of the area residents he has visited with are excited about the land exchange.
“A large block of land along the base of the Bighorn Mountains would be accessible to the public for recreation,” Fraley says. “The ranch offers outstanding hunting opportunities, and construction of Bull Creek Reservoir would improve the area trout fishery and supply water for agricultural irrigation.”
Crowder says the state trust lands that the State of Wyoming would relinquish in exchange for the Bull Creek Ranch are largely surrounded by private land, which makes public access for hunting and other activities difficult.
However, he emphasizes, “The State of Wyoming’s main goal in acquiring the Bull Creek Ranch is to enhance revenues and the long-term value of the state’s trust land assets.”
The proposed Bull Creek Reservoir project in north-central Wyoming is part of Gov. Matt Mead’s “Leading the Charge” state water strategy plan.
Water continues to be one of the biggest issues facing Western states, and Mead says that water is Wyoming’s most important natural resource.
Wyoming is a headwaters state, feeding the Green/Colorado, Platte/Yellowstone/Missouri and Snake/Columbia river systems.
“Our rights to water must be exercised or may be lost. That is the way of the West,” Mead says in his “Leading the Charge” introduction.
The long-term water strategy his administration is developing focuses on four key elements: water management, development, conservation/protection and restoration.
The “Ten in Ten Project,” which is one small part of the overall strategy, calls for the building of at least 10 reservoirs over the next decade that would each store between 2,000 and 20,000 acre feet of water.
Construction of the 280-acre Bull Creek Reservoir is identified as one of the 10 reservoirs. It would store approximately 16,400 acre feet of water for long-term agricultural, municipal, industrial, fisheries, recreation and possibly other uses.
The reservoir projects and other aspects of the water strategy, in part, are to help sustain farms and ranches across Wyoming.
Not only would it boost the amount of water available for irrigation, it would enable many ranchers and farmers to convert from flood to sprinkler irrigation, which ties into the conservation initiative.
Approximately 87% of Wyoming water usage is for irrigation. The second biggest user is mining (5.8%), while towns and cities consume about 2%.
The state water strategy is outlined in the “Leading the Charge” report online at waterplan.state.wy.us.