America's Biggest Landowners, 2011

Forbes

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 Malone pours 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 New England timberland. 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.

Slideshow: America's Biggest Landowners
Slideshow: America's Biggest Landowners

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 Report magazine 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.

This list of powerful landowners is 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.”

At his customary spot in the Top 5 at No. 3 is Archie “Red” Emmerson, whose Sierra 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.

Here are America's five largest landowners:

#5 Irving family
Owns: 1.2 million acres in Maine.

Arthur Irving and his family rank 5th on the list.
Photo: Getty Images | Inset: ZUMA Press/Newscom

These Canadian descendants of a Scottish sawmill operator are secretive and all business. They've amassed roughly a 20th of the state of Maine and will plant 28 million seedlings this year to keep the timber coming.


#4 Brad Kelley
Owns: 1.7 million acres in Texas, New Mexico and Florida

Brad Kelley is the nation's 4th largest landowner.
Photo: Getty Images/Aurora Creative | Inset: Jahi Chikwendiu/Lexington Herald-Leader

This Nashville, Tenn., farmer's son sold his Commonwealth Brands cigarette company for $1 billion in 2001 and began investing in land. Big time. The Land Report estimates the tightlipped Kelley owns 1.7 million acres. Most recently he's reported to have bulked up his holdings with ranchland in the Big Bend region of Texas.


#3 Archie "Red" Emmerson
Owns: 1.87 million acres in California and Washington

Archie "Red" Emmerson owns substantial tracts of land in the west.
Photo: Associated Press | Inset: Courtesy of Sierra Pacific Industries

In 1949 Emmerson and his father, Curly, leased a sawmill and built the business into Sierra Pacific Industries. Red borrowed $460 million to buy 522,000 acres in California, a position since increased to almost 2 million acres. When he was briefly the nation's largest private landowner, Red joked that Ted Turner "will probably go out and buy more land." He was right, but Emmerson is close behind.


#2 Ted Turner
Owns: 2 million acres in New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, Florida and several other states.

Ted Turner, the nation's No. 2 landowner, is a dedicated conservationist.
Photo: Associated Press | Inset: Nichola Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

An ardent conservationist, Turner began buying ranches in the 1970s and revived the nation's bison herd to 55,000 head on his ranches across the upper Great Plains. No regrets about losing the title as the nation's No. 1 land baron to John Malone: "I consider John a good friend and have great respect for him," Turner said.


#1 John Malone
Owns: 2.2 million acres in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Maine and New Hampshire.

John Malone is the nation's largest landowner.
Photo: Craig Dilger | Inset: Associated Press

The cable-television billionaire was outed as one of the nation's largest property owners by The Land Report two years ago and dramatically increased his holdings last year with the purchase of New Mexico's 453-square-mile Bell Ranch. Now he passes longtime No. 1 Ted Turner with the purchase of 1 million acres of timberland in New Hampshire and Maine from an investment firm.

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