Drug smuggler's ranch falls into public lands

  • Front gate of the Beartooth Ranch along Clark Fork River in Wyo.

    Dewey Vanderhoff
 

CLARK, Wyo. - Stewart Allen Bost had a dream, he told his drug ring buddies while smuggling more than three tons of cocaine into south Florida in 1986. He wanted to own a ranch in Wyoming.

So after retiring from the drug trade, he bought a secluded riverfront spread here, then guarded it and his privacy zealously for years. He even blocked a public road across the ranch.

But that reclusive strategy finally drew attention and ultimately led to his arrest last summer. Now Bost's dream - about to be confiscated by Uncle Sam - may be a dream come true for fans of the outdoors.

"It is rather amusing the way he got caught," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Clark. "But it seems rather fitting that part of the benefit to society is access to that piece of country."

Everyone knows drug busts usually lead to prison terms and fines. But often the more longstanding and practical payoffs come in the form of land and other assets the government can seize if they were purchased with illegal drug proceeds.

"More often than not the forfeited property goes to auction, but we also look for ways to bring it back into the community in a positive way, so it can do some good," said James Herzog of the U.S. Marshal's Service.

Federal drug laws allow the government to confiscate the assets of drug runners mainly as a tool to recover a sliver of the billions of tax dollars expended in the so-called war on drugs. But assets typically turn out to be boats, airplanes, guns, cars or opulent housing of little direct use to the public.

Fortunately for hunters, river rafters and wildlife-watchers in Wyoming, Bost had different tastes. In 1988, he paid $1.3 million for the Beartooth Ranch - 657 acres fronting the Clark Fork of the Yellowstone River. The Clark Fork is a blue-ribbon trout fishery that hosts bald and golden eagles, peregrine falcons and ospreys. Moose, deer and elk are residents.

Bost immediately deeded the ranch to Allen Stewart, an alias, and enjoyed his solitude downstream from Yellowstone National Park. A year later, in 1989, he was indicted by a Florida grand jury on drug charges, but authorities couldn't find him. Bost's exposure came when he closed a public thoroughfare by fencing a road where a 1960s easement fell short. Signs pointing the way to nearby public fishing holes went missing. An outhouse at a public parking lot disappeared. Soon land managers keeping watch over nearby federal acreage found the public portion of the road through Bost's ranch gated and padlocked.

"We're seeing this kind of thing more and more as people who are not used to the idea of public land buy some acres and want everything to themselves," said Ron McKnight, a fisheries supervisor with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. "In that way, this case wasn't all that unusual."

This time, there was a way to undo it. Bost's penchant for fences and his applications for federal grazing permits under two different names had aroused the suspicions of a BLM ranger, David Stimson, who learned the reclusive rancher was a wanted man.

He was finally arrested last summer in Wyoming and in December was sentenced to six years in prison, of which he will probably serve four, and fined $250,000. Now the feds are about to become owner of Bost's condominiums in Aspen, Colo., and his lots in the Florida Keys. And the Beartooth Ranch.

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno will ultimately decide whether the government will auction the ranch, as it does with most seized assets, or instead maintain it for the public. Federal ownership could open a new recreation corridor that might absorb some of the visitors now overwhelming nearby Yellowstone Park.

Even if federal officials do unload the prime property, though, they promise to first ensure more sweeping public access for hikers, construct a public boat ramp and give fishermen the permanent right to follow the river clear through the ranch. Local land managers and the Nature Conservancy are working out the details.

"We had someone who was locking the public out," fishing supervisor McKnight said. "Now we're in a position to make sure the public always has access there. It wouldn't have been possible any other way."

Meanwhile, the coffee-shop talk has it that Bost, who always paid cash for everything, buried a lot of it on the Beartooth Ranch. He's reported to have bought PVC pipe with more end caps than an ordinary rancher could ever need.

Michael Milstein writes in Cody, Wyoming.

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