By MSNBC contributor

Explainer: America's top landowners have commerce in mind

  • They grow timber, offer hunting or produce energy on their property. The three largest private landholders in America each have enough acreage to qualify their plots as the 49th largest state. No nosy neighbors for miles.

    Who are these owners and what do they do with all of that land? The 2010 list of the 100 largest U.S. land owners reflects market ripples: some are selling off pieces, but several tycoons are buying more and buying big.

    “To me, there’s a really fascinating element to this,” said Eric O’Keefe, editor of The Land Report magazine, publisher of the report. “And that is, 80 percent of us – about 220 million people – live on just 3 percent of the U.S.A.” That majority is crammed into the cities and suburbs.

    The other 97 percent? Much belongs to the federal or state governments or to corporations that tap it for mining or oil. National parks comprise a healthy portion. But the rest is owned by single families and lone entrepreneurs, farmers and conservationists.

    Below are 10 mega-land owners plucked from the magazine’s top 100, each offering a colorful tale or representing a critical market segment.

  • #1 Ted Turner (More than two million acres)

    Image: Ted Turner
    Charles Sykes  /  AP
    Ted Turner

    Turner heads this list for the fourth consecutive year. In 2010 he got bigger, buying the Nonami Plantation, about 8,800 acres near Albany, Ga. He also owns the world’s largest private herd of buffalo, some 50,000 animals.

    Turner succeeds as a mega-land owner because he is equal parts astute businessman and true ecologist, O’Keefe says.

    “He best exemplifies the continuum between stewardship and running a profitable operation,” O’Keefe said. “Because if you go too far to the stewardship end, you have a money pit; go too far to the revenue-generating side, you run down your asset.

    "Think about the number of ways they monetize Turner ranches: solar power, timber, natural gas, hunting and fishing. So he’s figuring out all sorts of ways to make it work in a sustainable manner.”

  • #5 John Malone (1.2 million acres)

    Image: John Malone
    Nati Harnik  /  AP
    John Malone

    In August, media magnate Malone purchased the historic, 290,000-acre Bell Ranch in New Mexico. The place offered a backdrop for many Hollywood Westerns. That deal bumped Malone up from No. 7 on the top 100, making him 2010’s “big mover,” O’Keefe said.

    The former owners, the Lane family, began looking to sell the Bell in 2006. Pre-recession, the Lanes wanted $110 million. By this year, the price had dropped to $83 million. The sale price has not been disclosed.

    “The sale was impacted (by the state of the economy) to a certain extent. This was basically a four-year campaign. That says quite a bit,” said the Lane family’s consultant, Patrick Bates of Bates Sanders Swan Lake Co. “Buyers have been sitting on the top rail, watching for three years. This is a watershed deal.”

  • #8 The Pingree heirs (830,000 acres)

    In the 1800s, shipping mogul David Pingree bought up thousands of square miles of timber-rich Maine woods. Nearly 10 years ago, his family placed the land under a conservation easement, ensuring the timber would never be overharvested.

    This year the family opted to sell off about 20,000 acres, O’Keefe said.

    “I can’t elaborate on the reason (for the sale),” said Steve Schley, president of Pingree Associates. “But I am pleased that we’ve kept all acres sold under (conservation) managements.”

    The sale didn’t budge the Pingrees from their No. 8 ranking.

  • #27 Jeff Bezos (290,000 acres)

    Image: Jeff Bezos
    Emmanuel Dunand  /  AFP - Getty Images
    Jeff Bezos

    The founder of Amazon.com has used his wealth and sweeping Texas acreage to build a spaceport that serves as a hub for his space exploration venture, Blue Origin.

    According to its website, Blue Origin is developing a rocket-propelled vehicle called New Shepard to fly astronauts into sub-orbital space at “competitive prices.” Those trips also will allow “the public” to experience space.

    Future flights will embark from Blue Origin’s launch site in West Texas. “New Shepard,” the site says, “will take off vertically and accelerate for approximately two and a half minutes before shutting off its rocket engines and coasting into space.”

  • #40 Louis Moore Bacon (202,000 acres)

    Image: Louis Moore Bacon
    Nick Harvey  /  WireImage
    Louis Moore Bacon

    Billionaire hedge-fund managers generally don’t enjoy sunny reputations in the wake of the Wall Street meltdown. But Bacon, founder of Moore Capital Management in New York City and London, has been dubbed – by O’Keefe – “a dedicated conservationist.”

    This year, Bacon bought 5,000 acres of the Orton Plantation in North Carolina, including the historic house and gardens. Roger Moore, son of an English Colonial governor for the Carolinas, built the original estate in 1725. Bacon is a descendant of Roger Moore.

    Bacon also owns the Trinchera Ranch in Colorado, as well as the Long Island, New York, properties of Robins Island and Cow Neck Farm.

  • #64 The Bass family (150,000 acres)

    Bass is a big name in Texas, a state rife with big land owners.

    The Bass lineage stretches back to Sid Williams Richardson, a Texan who made his fortune in oil and cattle. The money – and land – has stayed in the family; four of Richardson’s great-nephews dot the Forbes 400.

    And one family plot will get lots of airtime soon. ESPN will use Bass-developed Sundance Square in Fort Worth as its production headquarters for Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium.

  • #72 Tom Siebel (135,000 acres)

    Image: Tom Siebel
    Bryan Haraway  /  Getty Images
    Tom Siebel

    The founder of Siebel Systems – which he later sold to Oracle – owns two ranches in Montana, the Dearborn and N Bar. But in the Big Sky State, Siebel is anything but an absentee land owner.

    After more than 30 years in Montana, he recognized the toll the methamphetamine epidemic was taking. Consequently, in 2005 he used his money and business skills to launch the Meth Project, a public-education program that includes TV commercials.

    “He spent time with local law enforcement officials who let him know how serious the meth problem was in Montana. He wanted to do something about it,” said Sarah Ingram, a spokesperson for the Meth Project. “In five years, teen meth use has dropped by 63 percent and meth-related crime has dropped by 62 percent in Montana.”

  • #79 The Drummond family (119,000 acres)

    Image: Ree Drummond
    Charley Gallay  /  Getty Images
    Ree Drummond

    In the 1880s, Frederick Drummond established a family ranch on his acres in Pawhuska, Okla. But the place has become famous from the well-read blog of Ree Drummond, who describes snippets of ranch life through her website, thepioneerwoman.com.

    Here is a portion of her Sept. 21 blog post: “Sometimes when I don’t accompany my family when they work cattle, I make sure to meet them at the barn when they get back. They’re usually starving. Sweaty. Unless it’s winter. Then, freezing. They’re moving slowly.

    “And I bounce down toward the barn, full of vim and vigor, and greet them all with a smile and a sunshiny, ‘And how’s everyone doing today? Are we alive, awake, alert, and enthusiastic?!?’ Then I do a hurkey. Then they give me the stink eye.”

  • #82 The Scharbauer family (113,532 acres)

    Nearly one billion barrels of oil beneath the family’s West Texas land made generations of Scharbauers quite wealthy.

    But Clarence Scharbauer Jr.’s Valor Farm also has sired some elite racehorses, including 1987 Kentucky Derby winner Alysheba.

  • #88 The Robinson family (103,000 acres)

    Ni'ihau is the smallest, inhabited Hawaiian island. It also is privately owned.

    In 1864, a well-to-do Scottish woman, Elizabeth Sinclair, purchased Ni'ihau from the Kingdom of Hawaii, paying $10,000 in gold. The island was passed to her descendants, the Robinson family.

    The Hawaiian language has been kept alive on Ni'ihau – the only Hawaiian island where the native tongue is still primarily used. Tourists can visit Ni'ihau only for a half-day, enjoying helicopter tours and hunting safaris. Brothers Bruce and Keith Robinson are the owners.

    “It sounds like something right out of British nobility – that someone owns an island and limits access to it,” O’Keefe said.

    “But these people (the Robinsons and other mega-land owners) have their own kingdoms whether they’re surrounded by water or barbed wire or natural impediments. These people are able to leave their imprint on enormous swaths of our country. And I’m not so sure that that’s not an amazing part of our legacy.”

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