BLISS, Idaho • Nestled between parched rolling hills north of Bliss sits one of the most pristine private hot springs in the West. Many have tried to develop the 330-acre geothermic oasis, but now the new owner of White Arrow Ranch plans to convert it into an aquaponic farm.
“It’s the most unique property I have ever encountered,” said Ron Miller, owner of Wyoming’s Jackson Hole Resorts. “It’s unbelievable. I’m getting visions of what I’m going to make it into.”
Those visions include producing 43,000 heads of lettuce a month by Jan. 1, employing “eight to 14 local people per acre,” expanding the property’s lake systems and turning the area into a wildlife sanctuary.
The eventual employment of hundreds of people is part of an “assignment from God,” said Miller, who bought the ranch after the winner at a May 16 auction bowed out.
Many before him have tried to commercialize the property.
Robert Erkins of Bliss sold a trout farm to develop the property in 1975. When the ranch was completed in 1977, Erkins built a network of channels redirecting the hot water geyser beneath the ranch. He built several geothermal greenhouses and a 7,000-square-foot home.
Erkins spent millions between 1975 and 2003 but struggled to profit from various crops. The family was forced to give up the land “plagued by lawsuits,” said Randy Erkins, one of Robert’s 10 children.
George Panagiotou, who invented a no-heat Hollywood lighting system, bid $1.9 million for the ranch at a sheriff’s sale in 2003. Panagiotou told the Times-News in April 2013 that he bought the ranch to flip it. Gooding County records show that he began subdividing the property to sell as upscale real estate but didn’t complete the process.
Miller said the title was a mess when he acquired the property, riddled with bankruptcies and frayed water and land rights.
“But I’m good at real estate,” he said. “So I got my lawyers and cleaned up the title.”
When the ranch deal was finalized in
September, he said, the greenhouses were in shambles, inhabited by mountain lions and owls.
“This was all bird poop everywhere,” Miller said walking through one of the greenhouses. “It was unimaginable. It was embarrassing, actually. …It had been sitting for 10 years. George just didn’t take care of the property, so it kind of collapsed.”
Besides the greenhouses and a “guest house” built in the late 1800s, other finds give evidence of early settlers on the property. Native American hieroglyphics are plentiful in surrounding caves and mountains, and many arrowheads and pottery sherds are scattered across the ranch. A nearby cemetery has graves dated as far back as 1850.
The central feature, though, is the shallow geyser spewing 1.3 million gallons of 160-degree water per day, warming the ranch and feeding several steaming creeks and ponds.
Panagiotou said last April that he had Swiss scientists test the water when he owned the ranch, and they found it to be from 12,000 to 18,000 years old when it surfaces, coming from thousands of feet below. Most surface water is exposed to chemicals, such as acid rain. But the White Arrow hot springs produces some of the purest water on Earth because it has never been exposed to the atmosphere, he said then.
“It is a Yellowstone tailing,” Miller said. “There’s probably molten lava fairly close to the surface on this property that is producing the hot water springs. Steam coming off of lava is the purest form of geothermal (heat). …It comes from thousands of feet down, and that’s what purifies it. It’s coming up through all the lava rock.”
Since September, Miller said, he’s invested $100,000 into rehabilitating the greenhouses. Once restored, he plans to grow red and green butter lettuce using natural heat and aquaponic fish tanks. Oxygen from the plants will supplement tanks of tilapia and large-mouth bass. In turn, fish feces will feed the plants.
Similar operations in South Dakota cost $50,000 a month to heat with propane gas, Miller said, which will be saved when the greenhouses are operational. He said he plans to sell the lettuce commercially, beginning with area grocery stores and farmer’s markets, then expand into other crops such as tomatoes and cucumbers.
“I can’t imagine anyone could produce quite a pure product as we can with the water,” he said. “There’s no sulfur smell. This is going to be very profitable. This will throw off an incredible amount of power. It’s the only property I’ve seen that has all three of the sustainable energy factors: geothermal, solar and wind.”
Miller said his work would have been much more difficult if not for the groundwork laid by Erkins.
“This would be very difficult to recreate,” he said. “It would take many years.”
Previous ranch owners built their plans on “too much debt,” Miller said. Because he has retired from five lucrative resort companies in Jackson Hole, he said, the ranch is “an assignment” rather than a career.
“This is such a pristine property, I think the Lord gave me this property. He just couldn’t stand it anymore. It just needed to get cleaned up. …I don’t really need money, but everything I create keeps blessing me, and I make more. I’m an industrious person and we use it for charity,” Miller said.
He said he plans to hire about 80 local workers in the first year of operation, with the potential to hire exponentially more as he develops more geothermic farmland.
“Anytime you can bring more jobs into the community, it is a good thing,” said Tom Faulkner, chairman of the Gooding County Commission. “The community of Bliss needs a shot in the arm. It would be good for the tax base and Gooding County in general.”
Commercial operations aside, Miller said, he plans to eventually turn the ranch into a wildlife sanctuary by expanding ponds into lakes and lifting the property off the grid with hydroelectric power.
“I just want to be a good steward of the property and make everything sustainable, using things in cycles. I’m going to put in some orchards, and it is going to get more pristine. I’m going to do wildlife management.”
Many members of the Erkins family still live in Bliss and support Miller’s plans.
“This is where my parents parallel Ron Miller and his family,” said Randy Erkins. “They are not afraid to take a gamble and produce something for themselves and the communities they live in. I believe Ron Miller’s family is also community-oriented, jobs-oriented and religion-oriented.”
Miller said he welcomes suggestions for White Arrow Ranch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“What does one do when it’s all done?” he asked. “Give it back to the community?”