Media mogul to buy huge swath of Maine forestland

Posted Jan. 24, 2011, at 9:05 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 25, 2011, at 3:17 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Nearly 1 million acres of Maine forestland are about to change hands.

Under a deal slated to be completed Feb. 1, a company called BBC Land LLC with ties to a Colorado billionaire will purchase more than 900,000 acres — much of it in eastern and western Maine — from current owner GMO Renewable Resources.

John Cashwell, a local consultant for BBC Land, said very little will change under the new ownership. BBC Land will continue to manage the land as a working forest and will still allow public access for recreation, Cashwell said.

BBC Land plans to maintain the land’s certification as sustainably managed forestland. There also will be no change to the long-term contracts that guarantee a wood supply to Verso Paper’s mills in Jay and Bucksport.

“Pretty much the only thing changing is the name of the company that owns it,” Cashwell said Monday in an interview with the Bangor Daily News.

Cashwell declined to name the individuals behind BBC Land but described them as “a family from away with ties to Maine” committed to keeping it a working forest. He also declined to name a purchase price.

“This is not a short-term play,” Cashwell said. “It’s a family that is in it for the long term.”

But documents filed last week with the Maine Secretary of State’s Office listed John Malone of Englewood, Colo., as the only manager for BBC Land.

Malone is chairman of Liberty Media, an Englewood-based company with diverse media interests that include the cable channel QVC, the travel website Expedia.com, the Atlanta Braves baseball team and Sirius XM satellite radio.

Ranked No. 110 on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans, Malone also has emerged as one of the country’s largest individual private landowners in recent years. Malone was No. 5 on a list of the Top 100 landowners in the U.S. in 2010 that was published by The Land Report magazine.

“My interest in land conservation is well known and this pending land purchase in Maine will further enhance these efforts,” Malone told The Associated Press. “I intend to continue the forestry operations consistent with prior practices.”

Malone was said to own 1.2 million acres, roughly the same amount as the Irving family, Maine’s largest single landowner. Depending on the scope of Malone’s involvement in the BBC Land deal, he could challenge or even top fellow media mogul Ted Turner as the largest private landowner in the U.S.

Malone already owns tens of thousands of acres in Maine. In 2002, he purchased more than 53,000 acres in western Maine and had previously purchased roughly 15,000 acres around Spencer Lake.

He also was a past national board member of The Nature Conservancy.

The land involved in the deal is located in several pockets around Maine, including a large segment in northern Hancock and Washington counties as well as a chunk north of Rangeley along Maine’s borders with New Hampshire and Quebec. BBC Land also will acquire more than 20,000 acres in New Hampshire as part of the deal.

The forestland has changed hands repeatedly over the last several decades. International Paper acquired part of the timberland from Champion International Co. in 2000, and then GMO purchased more than 1 million acres from International Paper in late 2004 for approximately $250 million.

Representatives for GMO did not return a call seeking comment on the anticipated sale. Representatives from the Maine Department of Conservation and Verso Paper also declined to comment on the private land deal.

Alan Hutchinson, executive director of the Forest Society of Maine, said there have been a number of large land sales in Maine in the past 10 to 15 years. Hutchinson said it was a good sign that BBC Land has indicated that it plans to keep the status quo on the tracts.

“We are always watching to see if these lands continue to be valued as productive working forest land, and that seems to be the case here,” Hutchinson said.

Patrick Strauch, executive director of the industry trade group the Forest Products Council of Maine, said he understands that the new investor is “in it for the long run.”

“I don’t think anything is going to change,” Strauch said. “It is another landowner as far as the council is concerned and we welcome them.”

But the transaction, if completed, would be different from many of the more recent, large-scale land sales in Maine in one notable respect.

Many of the buyers of large swaths of Maine forestland — including GMO — have been financial investment firms that some observers feared would be more interested in a quick financial return than long-term management of the land. Cashwell described BBC Land as a family ownership.

Still, a land deal involving nearly a million acres is guaranteed to raise eyebrows.

Cathy Johnson, North Woods project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said land becomes more vulnerable to development when large areas of land change hands. Such development removes the land from the working forest landscape and affects wildlife as well as outdoor recreation, Johnson said.

So while BBC Land’s management approach may be the same, the sale underscores the importance of permanent land conservation in Maine and the need for the development reviews conducted by the Land Use Regulation Commission. LURC’s ability to control development within the Unorganized Territory is coming under fire from Gov. Paul LePage and Republican legislators.

“It just shows how fragile the status quo in the North Woods is,” Johnson said. “You can wake up one day and have 1 million acres change hands, and it could be completely different management.”

But Cashwell said the land sale will continue to support Maine jobs — both in the forests and the mills — while providing public access to the land.

“It’s good for Maine,” Cashwell said. “They will be good neighbors and will honor the commitments they have.”

BDN writer Christopher Cousins and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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