Tuesday, December 10, 2013
A recent study, Who Owns West Virginia? (full report pdf), gives a glimpse into the land ownership in the state. The report finds that much of the state’s private land is "owned by large, mainly absentee corporations, [but] the list of top owners – once dominated by energy, land holding and paper companies – now includes major timber management concerns."
As reported by Ken Ward Jr. in the Charleston Gazette, the report finds that "[n]one of the state's top 10 private landowners is headquartered in West Virginia." Although it is accurate that the top ten owners are not indivdual owners, I will note that not all of the top ten owners are "corporations." There is at least one master limited partnership and one limited liability company (LLC). That may not mean much in the sense of absentee ownership, but it is a doctrinal distinction I maintain is still important.
It's not shocking that these entity owners would be out of state, especially because that was true back in 1974, too, when the last study was done. There are relatively few large entities chartered or headquartered in West Virginia, and it appears that many of the state chartered companies that were around in 1974 have since been acquired by larger, out-of-state entities. Absentee ownership is hardly a new, or even modern, phenomenon in the state. The report notes: "By 1810, as much as 93 percent of land in present day West Virginia was held by absentee owners, more than any other state in the region and likely any other state in the Union." Much of the ownership is still based in the region, though, as many of the large companies holding West Virginia land are based in Virginia.
Although the purchase of West Virginia’s land by timber management companies is perhaps the most interesting finding by investigators for this report, researchers also found:
The top 25 private owners own 17.6 percent of the state’s approximately 13 million private acres.
In six counties, the top ten landowners own at least 50 percent of private land. Of the six, five are located in the southern coalfields – Wyoming, McDowell, Logan, Mingo and Boone. Wyoming County has the highest concentration of ownership of any county.
Not one of the state’s top ten private landowners is headquartered in West Virginia.
Many of the counties – including Harrison, Barbour, Mineral, Lincoln, and Putnam – that had high concentrations of absentee corporate ownership (over 50%) in Miller’s 1974 study did not in this analysis.
Only three corporations that were among the state’s top ten landowners in 1974 remained on that list in 2011. If the sale of MeadWestvaco properties to Plum Creek Timber is completed, only two of the 1974 top owners will still be on the list.
Nationally timberland management concerns control about half of the nation’s timberlands that had been managed by industrial timber companies until the 1980s.
Finally, another potentially important finding is different level of entity ownership by region as related to the minerals beneath the land -- coal and natural gas. The study found:
There are also large geographical disparities in the share of large private landowners in the state. All but one of the counties where the top ten landowners owned at least 50 percent of the private land is in the southern coalfield coalfields - Wyoming, McDowell, Logan, Mingo and Boone. In the Marcellus gas field counties of the northeast and north-central part of the state, the private land ownership is less concentrated and tends to be owned more by individuals than large out-of-state corporations.
The study looked only at surface ownership, and not mineral rights ownership, so it's hard to tell if this gives an accurate look at the level of entity ownership in the Marcellus Shale. Moreover, mineral estates may be owned by private individuals who have leased their rights to entities, so it may be that even more of the state's property rights are effectively controlled by entities. The report indicates more study would be useful here, and I concur.
The takeaway: This report has the potential to be a good starting point for considering how to move the state forward in trying times. As the study notes: "[S]tudying patterns of land ownership in West Virginia through the lens of the 2011 tax data can help us understand our history, make wise policies in the present and better map the future of the state."
I think that's right. To me, a big cavaet is to ensure that the report be used to react to what is and to plan for what could be, rather then getting bogged down in what was or could have been. If people spend their time lamenting that outside corporations own land in the state, they will be missing the opportunity to do something positive for the future, like figuring out what can be done to promote sustainable development in the state by working with the current landowners. I hope the focus is primarily on the latter. There have already been enough missed opportunities.