Why a millionaire real-estate mogul bought Skinwalker Ranch
“W hat we are witnessing could be evidence that we live in a multi-dimensional universe. That we are not alone. That we may be interacting with other entities, other intelligence,” says Brandon Fugal, real estate mogul and investor in the now infamous Skinwalker Ranch.
Once owned by hotel financier and billionaire Robert Bigelow, the ranch is a 512-acre parcel of land in Utah’s Uinta Basin long reputed to be rife with paranormal activity. Rumored to be cursed by Ute Indians and plagued by cattle mutilations and UFO sightings, the ranch drew intrigue as part of Bigelow’s black box government contract to study “anomalous aerospace threats.”
Then in 2016, Fugal ushered in a new era, purchasing the ranch for an unknown sum, tightening up security, hiring a team of researchers to study the anomalies, and launching the History Channel series The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch to document them. The show saw viewership in the millions and was renewed for a second season, resurrecting interest in the property and spawning more than a few viral TikTok videos.
“It is the most unusual real estate play that I’ve ever had involvement in,” Fugal says, “and it’s ended up becoming a very intriguing science project as well.”
A strange obsession with rural Utah
It’s an unusual place to start a ghost story.
The Uinta Basin consists of 9,300 square miles of tertiary rock in the shape of a bowl. Fed by runoff from the Uinta mountains and rich with large swaths of oil and gas, it was once the subject of an 1860s expedition ordered by Mormon settler Brigham Young. There he discovered a “vast contiguity of waste… valueless excepting for nomadic purposes, hunting grounds for Indians, and to hold the world together.”
In the 1860s, the basin was allotted by Abraham Lincoln as an Indian reservation, then in the early 1900s, it started to see a spattering of Mormon settlers. Around this time there were the beginnings of intrigue, namely two separate appearances―10 years apart―of a stranger appearing into their midst wearing a sparkling blue onesie beneath his cloak. (Nothing too unusual here―there seems to be some precedent of sparkling robes in the Book of Mormon.)
Mid- to late-century there starts to be some discussion of UFOs. The Deseret News―a property owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints―reported mass sightings of them throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Reports of malfunctioning air conditioning units and television sets occurred in tandem, with lore only growing as strange cattle deaths and mutilations became more prevalent in the 70s.
The property during this time was owned by a series of ranching families before drawing the attention of Bigelow in 1996. He purchased the property for $200,000 shortly after establishing the National Institute for Discovery Science, a research organization dedicated to the study of ufology and other aerial phenomena―and then the government thing happened in 2007.
Not much was known about the contract until The New York Times broke the story in 2017. Even then, only financials were disclosed. When the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program finally shuttered in 2012, Bigelow decided to turn his attention from studying ufos to joining them, shifting his focus to Bigelow Aerospace and selling the property to Fugal in 2016.
Bryant Arnold, now chief of security at Skinwalker Ranch, was initially against Fugal’s purchasing of the property. “The way he approached me about it was: ‘I’m looking to buy this 512 acres of property in the Uinta basin,’ I said, ‘you don’t even own a pair of jeans―so why are you buying 512 acres of dirt in the middle of nowhere?’”
Fugal proceeded to make his case, calling it “one of the most studied paranormal hotspots on the planet.”
“I was interested in taking the research forward and installing my own team of scientists and researchers in order to truly get to the bottom of what was happening on the Utah property,” Fugal says. “I think Mr. Bigelow saw me as a worthy successor and steward of the property, and that we’re only a few hours away from the property and have the resources to continue his work.”
An aversion to digging
“Crap goes down when people start disturbing the earth,” says Arnold, also known as “Dragon,” in the first episode of The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch.
The History Channel show spends a large portion of the first season on one central theme: bad things happen to those who dig. Twice, ranch superintendent Thomas Winterton develops a lump on his head, his scalp separating from his skull after digging on the ranch. Astrophysicist Travis Taylor opens a porthole and develops burns that his doctor says are similar to those radiation patients get.
When the team visits a cave on the property they record surging VOC levels at 3,600 parts per billion and Taylor comes down with a bout of vertigo. The batteries on their phones go dead within a matter of minutes and another phone starts to go haywire. Lured by the idea that some paranormal causation must exist just beneath the surface, the team remains eager to dig, but Bryant won’t let them. It’s too dangerous, he says.
The aversion to digging story arc is cumbersome, if not problematic, for one major reason: the Uinta Basin is, as previously mentioned, absolutely rife with oil. The land is perforated by more than 8,000 gas wells and 2,000 oil wells and has been a fracking destination since the 1960s. Mineral rights, as it turns out, are the primary source of income for the nearby Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation.
So though there may be some trepidation around digging, there has already been plenty of it―if not on the property itself then immediately adjacent to it. “You can sit on the elevated areas around the ranch and see drill rigs all over,” Arnold says. “Oil and gas, until it crashed, was a huge part of what the economy in the Uinta Basin was.”
And fracking has known contraindications in the area, filling the air with toxic levels of ozone and particulate matter. In 2015, a Rolling Stone article chronicled a series of stillbirths and birth defects that occurred in nearby Vernal, concluding that ground air in the Uinta Basin was “fraught with carcinogenic gases like benzene, rogue emissions from oil and gas drilling.”
“The Rolling Stone article had some concern whether the air pollution could cause the rise in neonatal deaths, and reported cases of unusual birth defects,” says Dr. Brian Moench, a medical doctor and board president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “We checked into it. About that time a study was published at the University of Colorado that showed very high levels of VOCs in the heart of the oil and gas drilling area of the Uinta Basin. They said the levels of VOCs measured were what you would expect from the emissions of 100 million cars.”
That is eight times more cars than operate in the Los Angeles Basin, Moench says, and 200 times more than background levels could account for. The study took place throughout 2013 and 2014―when oil and gas peaked in the area and the mothers of those stillborn babies would have been pregnant.
“We know from that study we have a pollution nightmare,” Moench says. “That includes toxic compounds that are known to cause a wide variety of health effects, including birth defects and cancer vulnerability. It was no surprise to us at all that there were fatal outcomes in the town of Vernal and the greater Uinta Basin.”
Moench says blood cancers such as leukemia can be triggered by environmental toxins, and present themselves about 5-10 years after exposure―which means affected individuals in the area could start seeing symptoms right about now. But Moench says it wouldn’t surprise him whether there was or wasn’t a spike. “The population isn’t large enough to have any statistical power,” he says.
If the environmental toxins in the basin are harmful enough to cause birth defects, infant death, and cancer, then they could just as easily take down livestock too. “Numerous people have mentioned livestock and farm animals getting sick,” says Moench of those living in Vernal. “That could be very easily explained by high levels of VOCs.”
There’s some mention of these hazards on the show, and Fugal is first to address their validity. “I have four kids but they have never been to the ranch,” he told me via text message. “The danger is real and we have to approach the ranch with a degree of reverence and caution.”
Unfortunately, fracking isn’t the only threat to Skinwalker Ranch. A series of nuclear weapons tests took place in rural Nevada between 1951 and 1962, resulting in radiation fallout across the state of Utah. “There’s no question that the radioactivity from the Nevada nuclear testing is still having consequences decades later in terms of exposing people to radioactivity,” Moench tells me.
He points me to a research study conducted at Oregon State University in 2008 in which a group of physics students collected and analyzed soil samples from 102 sites across Utah’s Washington County. Only one of the samples did not contain detectable amounts of Cesium 137―a byproduct of nuclear fission with a half-life of 30 years.
“The point is that the general environment of the downwind states is still suffering contamination from radioactive elements from the Nevada nuclear testing,” Moench says. “That could be influencing people’s exposure out at the Uinta Basin. I don’t know if that’s the case, but there’s every reason to believe that’s still a problem throughout the great basin area.”
Nine-year-old Bigelow once watched from his bedroom window in Las Vegas when the atomic bombs erupted across the horizon. It was perfectly dark, the twilight of early morning, then suddenly, “it lights up like daytime,” he once told Bloomberg. Those blasts drew Bigelow to pursue science. But perhaps it was only the remnants of that blast that he found in the plains of Utah, seeping into the soil, infusing it with a sense of the paranormal.
But if Skinwalker Ranch is nothing more than a swath of rural wasteland, saturated with radioactive chemicals, mined for mineral rights, and choking on the hazardous fumes, then what would not one, but two multi-millionaires want with it?
A deeper meaning
When they were 19 years old, Fugal and Arnold were missionary brothers for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the island of Oahu. On their very first day together, they were peddling their bikes to a dinner appointment when locals drove by in a truck and spat on Fugal’s brand new suit. Fugal was upset, but Arnold was already a seasoned veteran. “Welcome to it,” he told Fugal at the time. “Because this is where we are.”
In the decades to come, the two would stand together in their faith once more, this time as partners in the paranormal. “As we have moved through adulthood and middle age we have seen our lives come full circle,” Fugal says. “And we’ve been able to build on the foundation of our missionary experience at age 19 and progress forward in a powerful and unconventional way.”
Fugal still considers himself a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Arnold doesn’t, though both admit their religious backgrounds shape their experience at the ranch. Growing up, they were taught that there are worlds without number, that parallel universes exist alongside ours―and both have seen those beliefs confirmed at the ranch.
After losing his father in 1999, Arnold never had the sort of spiritual experiences people often talk about when they lose a family member… until he came to the ranch. “I feel this extreme closeness. Almost a sense of… I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. My feeling is that it’s an interdimensional type thing, a parallel type universe, which somewhat plays into the religious beliefs that I grew up with. I think it makes more sense because something will show up in one spot, and then it shows up in another spot as if it’s jumping between realms.”
Fugal agrees.“Most people on this planet believe in life after death,” he continues. “And I think the scientific explanation is that we do live in a multi-dimensional universe and that our consciousness has the capacity to pass from this dimension of reality into the next. I think scientists have theorized for a long time that we live in a multi-dimensional universe and what we’re observing on Skinwalker Ranch seems to confirm that.”
Fugal has seen great success as a commercial real estate broker, but like Bigelow before him, he found himself in the position to use some of that success to explore answers to some of life’s deeper questions, first as a tech investor testing various gravitational physics theories, then as a patron of the sciences. It would be through those scientific communities that he would come to be introduced to Bigelow―and to a new field of inquiry.
“Even though I acquired the ranch as a healthy skeptic, fully expecting that there was a 95 percent chance that all of the reports of high strangeness and supernatural activity had a natural, prosaic explanation… I always hoped that we were not alone and that there truly is a greater plan for mankind.”
What would it mean to him if we did discover we’re not alone? “It’s just confirmation that we are a part of a greater plan,” he says. “And that our existence is not just some cosmic random event or mistake, and that there is even greater meaning to our life and our existence than we would think.”