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Who Owns West Virginia in the 21st Century?

December 9, 2013

New Report Finds Biggest Landowners Headquartered Outside State

Contact Ted Boettner at 304-720-8682 or tboettner@wvpolicy.org

[Charleston, WV] – A study released today found that the top land owner in West Virginia is the Heartwood Forestland Fund, which manages more than 500,000 acres across 31 counties. Heartwood replaces energy-based corporations that were the state’s top landowners for most of the 20th century. The report, “Who Owns West Virginia in the 21st Century?” is coauthored by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and the American Friends Service Committee. Read PDF of report. Read Executive Summary.

The study, which reexamines the 1970s work of Huntington Herald-Dispatch reporter Tom Miller, also found that not one of the top ten landowners in West Virginia has its headquarters in the state. The most concentrated ownership is found in the southern coalfields. This raises concerns with the report’s authors.

“Absentee land ownership is a major thread that runs through our state’s history. Over the past century, outside control of land and natural resources has resulted in a steady flow of wealth out of West Virginia,” explained Beth Spence, Coalfield Specialist with the American Friends Service Committee. “Like those who studied this issue before us, we believe that knowing who owns West Virginia’s land and mineral resources can help us make good decisions about the state’s economic future and well-being.”

“With only a few large companies owning a big portion of the southern coalfields it could make it incredibly difficult to develop the area as coal continues its decline,” stated Ted Boettner, Executive Director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. “The implications of this research merit further investigation of taxation, mineral ownership and how to incentivize development in the region.”

Key findings of the report include:

  • 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 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.

Recommendations & Future Research:

  • Ensure that large landowners are adequately taxed on all of their property and holdings.
  • Make property tax records more transparent and accountable to the public. 
  • Find creative ways to incentivize economic development in counties that have high concentrations of land ownership. 
  • Establish a “Future Fund” (or permanent mineral trust fund) immediately so counties can build assets and regenerate growth in their communities. 
  • Conduct further research and analysis on mineral ownership and taxation patterns to ensure that everyone is carrying the tax load.