Undeveloped rural land remains an appealing investment, judging by the fact that America’s 100 largest landowners added 700,000 acres to their portfolios over the past year.
That figure comes from the 2013 Land Report 100, an annual survey of the biggest landowners in the United States. According to the report, the top 100 landowners now lay claim to 33 million acres, or almost 2 percent of all surface land in the United States.
Still atop the list is Liberty Media chairman John Malone, with holdings of 2.2 million acres across Wyoming, Colorado, Maine and Florida.
In the No. 2 position is Ted Turner, founder of CNN, who is also one of the largest landowners in Montana. Nationwide, his land holdings are put at 2 million acres, with more than half of it tied up in three ranches in New Mexico.
Gathering the information requires everything from delving into courthouse records to querying appraisers. Sometimes landowners even volunteer the information.
“What really helps us a great deal is we’ve been doing this for six to eight years and they see that we profile and feature longtime stewards of the land,” said Eric O’Keefe, editor of the Land Report.
He noted, however, that sometimes landowners are missed, either because the publication isn’t aware of them or they purposely try to remain below radar.
“Quite frankly, some would just as soon not hear from us,” O’Keefe said.
Jim Taylor of Hall and Hall real estate in Billings said large land sales haven’t been as common for his company this year after back-to-back record years in 2011 and 2012. Still, he said, the volume and variety of sales has remained strong.
“It’s not usual to do sales over $40 million,” Taylor said. “There are not too many people in that marketplace and not a lot of property like that for sale.”
He said what typically happens is that landowners add about 25 percent to their sale prices after seeing large acreages sold, which may scare away buyers until they’re willing to play.
“Generally speaking, people are pretty conservative with their money,” Taylor said.
According to the Land Report, there are at least 12 other landowners on the top 100 list who own property in Montana or Wyoming. They include:
No. 8: Stan Kroenke’s purchase of the 124,000-acre Broken O Ranch near Augusta in 2012 moved him up two notches from last year. His holdings are now 848,571 acres and include the 540,000-acre Q Creek Ranch south of Casper, touted as the largest contiguous ranch in the Rocky Mountains.
No. 16: Phillip Anschutz, owns 434,500 acres, part of which will be used to develop a $6 billion wind farm on his Wyoming Overland Trail Cattle Co. ranch.
No. 19: Earl Holding, CEO of Sinclair Oil, died this year but left his family with 400,000 acres, parts of which are in Wyoming and southern Montana.
No. 28: Brothers Dan and Farris Wilks made headlines in Montana after buying up several ranches last year, including the historic N Bar south of Lewistown. Their purchases in Montana alone boosted them to 276,000 acres. They are the largest private landowner in Montana, excluding corporations like Plum Creek Timber. This was the Wilks brothers' debut on the Land Report list.
No. 33 (three-way tie): David Killam purchased the 60,000-acre Dana Ranch along the Missouri River near Great Falls earlier this year to push his land holdings to 255,000 acres. Also at 33 is the True family, which has developed its oil holdings around Casper, Wyo., to raise enough money to purchase some iconic ranches, including the LAK Ranch on the Wyoming-South Dakota border.
No. 42: The 220,000 acres owned by the Scott heirs is tied up in the Padlock Ranch, which stretches across the central Montana-Wyoming state line.
No. 51: Oil money helped the Hunt family buy 190,000 acres, part of which is in Montana and Wyoming.
No. 52: Tim Blixseth, embattled former owner of the Yellowstone Club at Big Sky, still owns land in the area but most of his 189,000 acres is now held out of state.
No. 61: Benjy Griffith III has part of his 161,093 acres in Montana.
No. 78 (tie): The Montana cattle ranching Lane family owns 140,000 acres.
No. 84 (tie): The Booth family has a portion of its 125,000 acres in Wyoming.
No. 86: Owners of Wyoming’s Rockin’ 7 Ranch, the Reese family lays claim to 122,200 acres.
According to the Gazette’s search of Montanans’ land holdings earlier this year, two other Montana families with extensive land holdings could have ranked high on the list, but weren't included.
The Galt family owns 248,023 acres, much of it in the 71 LP Ranch. That much land would place them at 37 on the Land Report list. The Coffee-Nefsy limited partnership with 168,188 acres would rank 58 on the Land Report list.
The annual Land Report was sponsored by Fay Ranches, a real-estate brokerage headquartered in Bozeman. The report’s top 100 list focuses exclusively on deeded acreage owned by individuals, families, family owned companies and foundations.