Mogul’s 1M-acre Maine buy may put him atop US landowner list

Eric Zelz | BDN
Posted Feb. 04, 2011, at 11:39 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 05, 2011, at 6:07 p.m.
John Malone could be the country's No. 1 landowner after a purchase of more than 1 million acres in Maine.
Karl Gehring | The Denver Post
John Malone could be the country's No. 1 landowner after a purchase of more than 1 million acres in Maine.

He’s been called the “master dealmaker” and the “king of cable” — a risk-taking Colorado billionaire who has had a major hand in the way Americans have watched, and paid for, television in recent decades.

Now, thanks to his purchase of about 1 million acres of Maine forestland, John Malone is vying for a new title: the nation’s largest individual landowner.

On Tuesday, a company set up by Malone, BBC Land LLC, closed on the sale of about 1 million acres of commercial timberland in far western and far eastern Maine and an additional 23,000 acres in neighboring New Hampshire.

Parties involved in the deal said Mainers will notice little to no change as a result of the massive transaction. Timber harvesting will continue on the land — in fact, likely using the same contractors — and the public will still have free access for recreation.

“John has good plans for it,” David Soule, a Wiscasset attorney who handled the sale, said Wednesday. “It’s pretty much business as usual and we are going to continue to manage it as good stewards.”

So who, exactly, is Maine’s newest mega-landowner? And why was he interested in vast swaths of Maine’s commercial forests?

While Malone and his wife, Leslie, have owned several properties in Maine for well over a decade, the Colorado businessman is largely a mystery in the Pine Tree State.

Malone grants few interview requests on his business dealings and even fewer on his personal interests. And he has remained tight-lipped about his reasons for the Maine purchase, releasing only a two-line statement after the anticipated sale became public.

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

‘Do well by doing good’

Malone, 69, definitely fits the label of “media mogul.”

A Connecticut native, Malone got involved in cable television in the early 1970s when the industry was still largely in its infancy.

He served as president and CEO of Tele-Communications Inc. from 1973 to 1996, helping TCI grow from a small western outfit to the nation’s largest cable company. TCI merged with AT&T in 1999 in a deal valued at more than $40 billion.

Today, Malone serves as chairman of Liberty Media Corp., a company that in many ways epitomizes the diversity of the modern media industry. A partial listing of Liberty Media’s interests include: cable channels QVC and Starz, popular websites Expedia.com and Evite.com, the satellite radio subscription service Sirius XM and the Atlanta Braves professional baseball team.

Forbes Magazine ranked Malone No. 110 on the magazine’s most recent annual listing of America’s 400 richest people, with a personal wealth valued at $3 billion.

In recent years, Malone has invested that wealth in land — and lots of it.

Before the completion of the Maine deal, Malone owned an estimated 1.2 million acres nationwide. That was enough to earn him the No. 5 spot on a list of the largest private landowners in the United States last year, according to The Land Report, a magazine focused on land ownership and management issues.

Most of that acreage was in Colorado and Wyoming, where the Malones have demonstrated an affinity for purchasing — and restoring — historic cattle ranches.

But the Colorado businessman’s latest acquisition in Maine could send Malone past another media mogul, Ted Turner, as the nation’s top land baron.

“The odds are, when the tabulations are done and this transaction closes, Mr. Malone definitely will be America’s largest landowner,” Eric O’Keefe, editor of The Land Report, recently told The New York Times.

It’s unknown whether the title of U.S. “land king” would matter to Turner and Malone — two friends who actually own neighboring land in New Mexico. But in a rare interview with Bloomberg, Malone said Turner taught him a valuable financial lesson: buy land.

“He has done very well in his land investments,” Malone said in the July 2010 interview. “He loves the land. It is sort of a lasting economic asset and if you are charitably minded and you like conservation you sort of can do well by doing good.

Colorado conservationist

In Colorado, Malone was the linchpin in what some describe as one of the most significant land conservation deals in that state’s recent history.

Conservationists had been watching with dismay for decades as the suburban sprawl of Denver and Colorado Springs steadily crept closer to one another along the roughly 70-mile stretch of Interstate 25 separating the two cities.

The “jewel” within that corridor was Greenland Ranch: 21,000 acres of undeveloped prairie (except for a historic ranch) and prime wildlife habitat that stretched for eight miles on either side of the interstate.

Groups as well as Colorado Gov. Roy Romer had been working for years to permanently protect Greenland Ranch from the encroaching suburbs. But it was not until Malone paid more than $50 million to purchase 17,000 acres that the goal became a reality.

“The Greenland Ranch acquisition as well as others in that area have effectively prevented Denver and Colorado Springs from growing together,” said Sydney Macy, director of The Conservation Fund in Colorado, who was heavily involved in the project. “We clearly would have never gotten it done without John.”

Colorado does not have the same tradition of public access on private lands, so the Greenland Ranch property was not open to the public for recreation before or after Malone’s purchase, Macy said. Instead, the land is valuable as a “scenic respite” amidst the development for drivers on I-25 as well as for wildlife habitat.

The Malones also have maintained it as a working cattle ranch.

John Swartout, executive director with the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts, said the Greenland Ranch project is known statewide as one of the biggest conservation successes since the establishment of two national parks. And Malone was a key player.

“He didn’t take a lot of credit for what he did,” Swartout said. “He did it quietly.”

In a 2006 interview with the Denver Post, Malone said he and his wife regard “open land” — and particularly scenic, open near metropolitan areas — as important to a region’s heritage.

“I think it’s very important that land be preserved, especially for future generations. Once that land gets developed, you can never go back,” he said.

As for the couple’s decision to maintain their western lands as active cattle ranches, Malone added: “What we didn’t want to do is buy a lot of land and unemploy a lot of people.”

Land as a business

There are no cattle ranches or open prairies on the 900,000-plus acres of Maine timberland that is now part of Malone’s portfolio. Instead, Malone bought expanses of commercial timberland interspersed with lakes and streams, hills and mountains.

But the tracts — located largely in the east in Washington and Hancock counties and in the west in the Rangeley region — support Maine’s two top industries: forestry and tourism.

Mike Tetrault, state director of The Nature Conservancy in Maine, said he believes Malone will bring stability and a longer-term management strategy to the land, whose previous owner was the financial investment firm GMO Renewable Resources.

“He is unknown to most of Maine … but I would say people should be really pleased,” Tetrault said. “If you care about public access [for recreation], you should feel good. If you care about ecological management, you should feel good. And if you care about timber supply, you should feel good.”

The man who helped broker the deal, Bangor’s John Cashwell, retired several years ago after a long career with the forest management firm Seven Islands Land Co. Cashwell could not be reached for comment after the sale, but last week he said Malone’s purchase would protect jobs in the woods, in the mills and in tourism.

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

Malone is no stranger to Maine, even if his name is new to most Mainers.

He and his wife own several hundred acres in Boothbay, a shipyard in nearby Southport as well as an island in Penobscot Bay. But Malone’s interests in Maine became public news more than a decade ago when he purchased all of the land around Spencer Lake outside of Jackman.

Then, in 2002, Malone purchased more than 53,000 acres of the so-called Frontier Forest, commercial timberland located between Jackman and the Quebec border. Those purchases sparked concerns that Malone was gobbling up “kingdom lots” — vast expanses of land that some feared would be closed to the public.

But Malone kept the land open to recreational users and has continued to manage the Frontier Forest for timber.

Peace amid uncertainty

Malone’s most recent purchase places him alongside the Irving family as Maine’s largest landowners.

Land sales in the order of a million acres would typically prompt a robust discussion about the future of Maine’s North Woods and the traditional tug-of-war between advocates for the timber industry and environmentalists.

The uncertainty surrounding Malone and his purchase has created a buzz. Yet Malone seems to have somehow appeased all sides — at least for now.

News that the Colorado businessman bought the land from GMO — and, most importantly, planned to keep the status quo — was welcomed by the Maine Forest Products Council, the Forest Society of Maine, sportsmen and others.

Michael Beardsley, executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, said his organization is encouraged by Malone’s statement that he intends to “continue the forestry operations consistent with prior practices.”

“To be clear, those practices have always involved active harvesting operations,” Beardsley wrote in an e-mail on Wednesday. “As long as Mr. Malone is true to his word, this purchase serves to continue the tradition of large landowners whose land is in active forest operations.”

Matt Dunlap, interim executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said he and other SAM leaders have yet to speak with Malone’s representatives. But Dunlap said Malone’s approach to land management in Maine and elsewhere as well as his interest in protecting from development — a major concern for sportsmen — are positive indications.

“His record has been quite good in terms of other projects he has been involved in, and he doesn’t appear to be a cut-and-run investor,” Dunlap said. The big issues for SAM will be that he maintains access and protects wildlife habitat, he said.

Jonathan Carter, a well-known environmentalist who helped lead the debate over clear-cutting in the 1990s, said he would love for Malone to get together with the likes of conservationist Roxanne Quimby to permanently protect some of his land.

But unlike Quimby, Malone has said he would maintain the land as a working forest. Regardless, Carter said he hopes the Malones are thinking about the “what sort of legacy they want to leave.”

“I think, on balance, the evidence suggests that, yes, Malone is a businessman,” Carter said. “But he also has a significant affection for Maine and the North Woods and he is going to be a good steward of the land.”

Top 10 landowners in the U.S.

1. John Malone 2.2 million acres*

2. Ted Turner 2+ million acres

3. Red Emmerson 1.722 million acres

4. Brady Kelley 1.7 million acres

5. Irving Family 1.2 million acres

6. Singleton Family 1.11 million acres

7. King Ranch 911,215 acres

8. Pingree heirs 830,000 acres

9. Reed Family 770,000 acres

10. Stan Kroenke 740,000 acres

Source: Land Report, 2010

*including latest Maine purchase

Top 10 landowners in Maine

1. Irving Family — 1.2 million acres

2. John Malone — 1+ million acres

3. Plum Creek — 929,000 acres

4. Pingree heirs — 830,000 acres

5. Prentiss & Carlisle — 748,000 acres

6. Maine Dept. of Conservation — 600,000 acres

7. Bayroot Timber — 471,000 acres

8. Typhoon LLC — 402,000 acres

9. Merriweather — 284,000 acres

10. The Forestland Group 235,229 acres

Source: Maine Department of Conservation, Land Report

Maine by the numbers

• Football field — about 1 acre

• Roxanne Quimby 120,000 acres

• Baxter State Park 210,000 acres

• John Malone — 1 million acres

• State of Maine — 22,646,400 acres

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