Land Grab: Media Mogul John Malone recently became the largest individual landowner in the U.S., edging out old friend, Ted Turner.
By MONTE BURKE
Malone, the 70-year-old billionaire chairman of Liberty Media, has well sated that hunger. He started his land feast slowly nearly two decades ago, collecting parcels in Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado. By the beginning of last year he had nearly 1 million acres. But in the last seven months, as property prices and the cost of borrowing have dropped, the hard-bargaining cable magnate’s land grab shifted into overdrive.
In August Malone bought the 290,100-acre Bell Ranch in northeastern New Mexico, after waiting years for it to drop to what he says was a “rational price.” (The ranch was initially listed in 2006 for $110 million, then for $83 million last year. Malone is rumored to have gotten it for closer to $60 million.) Then in February he made his biggest splash, snapping up 1 million acres of timberland in Maine and New Hampshire for a “fair price.”
With that acquisition Malone became the largest private landowner in the U.S., at 2.2 million acres, according to The Land Report, which tracks sales. He surpassed his fellow billionaire Ted Turner, who had held the title for the previous 15 years. Turner owns 2.1 million acres in the U.S. and has an additional 100,000 acres in South America.
The turnover at the top is fitting. Malone (worth $4.5 billion) and Turner (worth $2.1 billion) are longtime acquaintances and business partners. Malone served on the board of Turner Broadcasting in the 1980s and bailed out Turner’s company in 1987. In 2007, through Liberty Media, Malone became the owner of the Atlanta Braves, Turner’s old baseball team. (“I will always think of them as Ted’s team,” says Malone.) The two have neighboring trophy ranches in northern New Mexico (Malone’s 250,000-acre TO Ranch runs east from Turner’s 591,000-acre Vermejo Park Ranch.) And it was Turner, 72, who “first gave me this land-buying disease,” says Malone, when the duo flew a helicopter over Vermejo. Says Turner: “Over the years I’ve shared my experiences with John. I consider him a good friend and have great respect for him.”
So no Hatfield-McCoy here. Malone recently visited Turner, who was “down in the dumps because I still have lots of dry powder and he’s pretty tapped out,” jokes Malone. “I think if it was a race, Ted would concede.”
Turner seems happy to do just that, saying he was glad to see Malone make his latest acquisition. “We’re working toward the same goal–to be stewards of the land and make sure it’s preserved for future generations,” says Turner.
But though their conservation ends may be the same, their means differ. “Ted’s idea of tradition is to go back to pre-European times,” says Malone. Turner famously poisoned a stretch of Cherry Creek–which runs through his Flying D Ranch in Montana–to rid it of the invasive brown and rainbow trout. (He replanted the stream with native cutthroat trout.) At Turner’s ranch bison roam free over land that’s been cleared of most signs of human habitation.
Malone, on the other hand, says, “I tend to be more willing to admit that human beings aren’t going away.” So he believes that trees can be harvested without damaging the ecology and wildlife. (“I’m not an extreme tree-hugger,” he says.) He will continue the sustainable forestry operation on the Maine and New Hampshire land (purchased from GMO Renewable Resources, a private equity firm). Malone is also looking at wind-power opportunities on the property and will keep the land open for public recreation, a Maine tradition. Malone takes the same “working farm” philosophy with his western properties, like the Bell Ranch, where he raises cattle and horses.
Malone wants to “break even” on his land, but there is more than economics involved. “There’s the emotional and intellectual aspect of walking the land and getting that sense of awe,” he says. “I own it, sort of, for my lifetime.”
Like Turner, he has plans to conserve most of it for beyond his lifetime, through perpetual conservation easements. “But I’m not going to kid myself and think that 500 years from now, with population growth, that the government won’t start putting people on the land,” he says. “But at least I tried.”
(Members of the Forbes Billionaires list in bold)
1. John Malone: 2.2 mn acres—With this year’s purchase of one million acres in Maine and New Hampshire, became the new top dog. Liberty Media chairman also owns property in New Mexico, Wyoming and Colorado.
2. Ted Turner: 2.1 mn acres—Land in seven states. Strident environmentalist has more than 50,000 bison. Has begun renewable energy plant (solar) in New Mexico.
3. Red Emmerson: 1.722 mn acres—Runs family-owned timber company Sierra Pacific Industries, founded by father, “Curly.” Biggest landowner in California. Recently has begun placing some land in conservation easements.
4. Brad Kelley: 1.7 mn acres—Discount cigarette billionaire owns land in Texas, New Mexico, and Florida, mostly used to propagate rare animal species, like the pygmy hippo and okapi.
5. Irving family: 1.2 mn acres—Through the timber company, Irving Woodlands, the Canadian family owns forest land in Maine, most of which is sustainably harvested.
6. Singleton Family: 1.11 mn acres—Children of Dr. Henry Singleton, founder of Teledyne, Inc., run ranchland in New Mexico. Avid participants in local rodeos.
7. King Ranch: 911,215 acres—Land in Texas and Florida. Farm sugarcane, vegetables, citrus and pecans. The ranch produced 1946 Triple Crown winner, Assault.
8. Pingree heirs: 800,000 acres—Family’s Seven Island Land Company owns tract of land in Maine bigger than state of Rhode Island. Heirs of David Pingree, a 19th century shipper.
9. Reed family: 770,000 acres—Through Simpson Lumber Company, owns timberland in Pacific Northwest.
10. Stanley Kroenke: 740,000—St. Louis Rams and Arsenal owner owns cattle and recreational ranches in Montana and Wyoming.