Huge Timber Purchases Make Malone America’s Biggest Landowner

12 Oct

The media business must be nerve-wracking, what with its up-and-down fortunes and constant threat of being outflanked by the next iPad-delivered Internet service. Maybe that explains why Liberty Media’s  John Malonepours so much of his extra cash into land.

Earlier this year Malone passed fellow media mogul Ted Turner to become America’s Biggest Landowner with 2.2 million acres, thanks to a giant investment in timberland in New England. It capped a quick ascent for the cable-television magnate, who joined the list of the nation’s land barons last year, shoving aside ranchers and timber magnates, some of whom have owned their acreage for generations. He entered the list at No. 5 after buying New Mexico’s 453-square-mile Bell Ranch in 2010, then passed Turner earlier this year after buying 1 million acres in New Hampshire and Maine from private equity firm GMO Renewable Resources.

Malone blamed heritage, not nerves, for his love of the asset whose supply will never increase. As he told Forbes writer Monte Burke in March: “My wife says it’s the Irish gene. A certain land hunger comes from being denied property ownership for so many generations.” Turner, contacted by The Land Reportmagazine for its annual list of the nation’s largest landowners, said he was happy to hand over the title. “I consider John a good friend and have great respect for him,” Turner said.

Aside from Malone’s quick trip to the top, the list didn’t change much this year. Compiled by Land Report researchers with the assistance of Fay Ranches, a Western land brokerage, the list includes the usual family timber dynasties as well as the owners of the King Ranch in Texas, once considered unimaginably huge but now, at 911,000 acres dwarfed by the holdings of Turner and Malone.

No. 2, of course, is Turner, the CNN founder who began buying ranches in the 1970s and now controls 2 million acres in New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, Florida and several other states. If $1 billion separates the men from the boys in terms of raw wealth, the new land barons can judge themselves by the number of Rhode Islands they own. Turner has almost three, including the spectacular Vermejo Park Ranch straddling the border of New Mexico and Colorado which is nearly as large as the Ocean State all by itself. Malone credits his fellow media magnate for giving him “this land-buying disease.”

Turner is a dedicated conservationist who has resurrected the American bison on his ranches (he has some 55,000 of the beasts munching his grasslands now). He also formed a partnership with the Southern Co. to build a 364-acre solar site in New Mexico that produces 30 megawatts at times of peak sunlight, enough to power 9,000 homes.

At his customary spot in the Top 5 at No. 3 is Archie “Red” Emmerson, whoseSierra Pacific Industries boosted its holdings to almost 1.9 million acres this year. The forest products company , now entering its third generation of Emmerson management, is the second largest U.S. timber producer and works closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to preserve species on its land. Emmerson and his father, Curly, began their march into the ranks of bigtime landowners in 1949 when they leased a California sawmill. Emmerson later borrowed $460 million to buy 522,000 acres in northern California, holdings that have since spread into Washington.

At No. 4 is recent entrant Brad Kelley, a Tennessee cigarette magnate who poured the profit from the $1 billion sale of his company into 1.7 million acres of land in Florida, Texas and New Mexico. Below him by half a million acres is the Irving family of Canada, who own a little less than 1/20th of the state of Maine (plus a bunch more in Canada). The descendants of thrifty Scottish immigrants, the Irvings are in lumber for the long haul; they’ll plant some 28 million seedlings in their forests this year.

The No. 6 landowners are the Singleton family of New Mexico with 1.1 million acres. Henry Singleton was a brilliant engineer who co-founded Teledyne and began buying land in New Mexico in the mid-1980s. Now his heirs run the massive Singleton Ranches, headquartered in Santa Fe, one of the nation’s biggest cattle and horse-breeding operations.

The fabled King Ranch of South Texas comes in seventh at 911,215 acres. Still owned by the descendants of Captain Richard King, the ranch boasts its own breed of cattle, the Santa Gergrudis, which the family developed by crossbreeding Shorthorn and Hereford cattle with Brahman.

The Pingree family of Maine are eighth with 830,000 acres of timberland. Like the King family, the Pingrees started with a patriarch in the shipping business, David Pingree, who correctly foresaw the demise of the whaling industry. He started investing in Maine in 1820, the year it became a state as part of the Missouri Compromise. The family’s Seven Islands Land Co. sold a conservation easement in 2001 for $28 million, or $37 an acre, to prevent any future development.

Coming in at ninth and tenth are Washington’s Reed family, with 770,000 acres, and sports-team owner (and husband of Wal-Mart heiress Anne Walton) Stan Kroenke. The Reeds, who control the Simpson lumber and manufacturing company based in Tacoma, trace their heritage back to Sol Simpson, Canadian lumber raftman who immigrated to Nevada to find gold but made his fortune in Washington timber. Kroenke, who owns the St. Louis Rams and the Denver Nuggets, owns the Cedar Creek and PV Ranches as well as the Q Creek Land & Livestock Co. in Colorado, which with 570,000 acres is the largest contiguous ranch in the Rocky Mountains.  Big enough, in fact, to supply burger meat to his Blue Sky Grill in Denver.

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