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Their wide-open spaces are really wide

Turner tops the list of the nation's largest private landowners, compiled by Forbes with the help of The Land Report, a publication that tracks large landowners and land sales.
Image: Ted Turner participates in the 2010 Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California
Turner Enterprises Inc. Chairman Ted Turner is the nation's largest private landowner.PHIL McCARTEN / Reuters
/ Source: Forbes

Texas oilmen used to talk about their wealth in terms of "units," as in $100 million. When it comes to land, maybe the operative term should be "Rhode Islands."

Billionaire Ted Turner owns just shy of three Rhode Islands, including the spectacular Vermejo Park Ranch straddling the border of New Mexico and Colorado, which at 590,823 acres, or 920 square miles, would cover a substantial portion of the 668,753-acre Ocean State. Turner's other U.S. holdings include ranchland in Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, as well as a 30,000-acre hunting preserve in Florida he calls home, totaling 2 million acres.

Turner tops the list of the nation's largest private landowners, compiled by Forbes with the help of The Land Report, a publication that tracks large landowners and land sales.

Sales are still occurring, but at prices down 50 percent or more from what owners thought they'd get at the peak of the bubble. The 3,151-acre Boot Jack Ranch in Colorado sold in April for a reported $47 million, down 47 percent from its initial asking price, but still a hefty $15,000 an acre. The ranch is near Wolf Creek Ski area and has coveted water rights of 100,000 cubic feet per second.

"Investors are no longer sitting on the sidelines, and sellers want liquidity," said Eric O'Keefe, editor of The Land Report. Up for sale now: The 193-acre Iowa farm where Kevin Costner filmed "Field of Dreams," for $5.4 million; and the 62,000-acre N Bar Ranch in Montana, whose former owners included Tom Cruise (not the movie star but the 1800s Irish immigrant gold magnate of the same name). The N Bar is priced at $45 million, or $750 an acre.

Of the top 10 private landowners in the U.S., more than half are in it for the money. Coming in right behind Turner, for example, is billionaire Archie (Red) Emmerson, a onetime sawmill operator who has amassed 1.9 million acres of timberland in California and Washington. Emmerson's family-owned Sierra Pacific Industries is a $1-billion-a-year business, not a weekend indulgence.

The fourth-largest landowners, Canada's Irving family, also accumulated about a 20th of Maine's land area as a timber investment. The descendants of a Scottish immigrant who established a sawmill in New Brunswick in 1882, the Irving family now has interests in everything from tissue manufacturing to oil and gas. Forbes estimates the clan is worth at least $4 billion. Lately they've been embroiled in a fight with Maine lawmakers who want to prevent them from importing Canadian crews to cut their timber.

Then there are the recreational land barons, like Turner, who made his $1.7 billion in media and bought his first ranch in 1987. Turner now oversees a herd of more than 50,000 bison and has devoted himself to conservation, restoring his hundreds of thousands of acres to their state before settlers began building roads and stringing telephone wires. To prevent future development, he's encumbered much of the land with conservation easements.

Brad Kelley, No. 3 on our list, also appears to be a recreational owner — if that can be said of anybody who's amassed 1.7 million acres in less than a decade. The son of a Tennessee farmer, Kelley made $1 billion building and selling Commonwealth Brands, a low-end cigarette manufacturer. He's poured the profits into land in New Mexico, Florida and lately Texas, where his emissaries reportedly have been acquiring hundreds of thousands of acres in the southwestern corner of the state. He stocks his land with rare species such as rhinos, wildebeests and miniature water buffalo.

Another new addition to the list is media billionaire John Malone at No. 7, who The Land Report says has acquired 900,000 acres in Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico. One strategic purchase was development land between Denver and Colorado Springs which he bought to prevent urban sprawl from linking the two cities.

The rest of the top 10 are all commercial enterprises, including the Singleton family holdings at No. 5, which were assembled by Henry Singleton, the engineer who co-founded and ran the conglomerate Teledyne in the 1960s and 1970s. He assembled a string of ranches in a 250-mile-wide swath of New Mexico starting with the San Cristobal Ranch near Santa Fe in 1986. Managed by his five children, Singleton Ranches owns 1.1 million acres in New Mexico and California and is one of the nation's top cattle and horse-breeding operations.