Ted Turner is not the biggest. As the founder of Cable News Network and now vice chairman of Time Warner, Ted Turner is famous, even legendary. So are his landholdings in New Mexico: three ranches with an average size of 383,000 deeded acres each. Part of his legend, in fact, seems to be that he owns more land that any other individual in this state.
Yet Turner, who lives in Roswell--Georgia, not New Mexico--is not the biggest personal landowner in the Land of Enchantment. That honor falls to Henry Singleton, a corporate executive from Beverly Hills CA. For more than a decade Singleton has been quietly buying far smaller ranches between Santa Fe and Roswell--but a whole lot of them. He now owns upwards of 1.2 million acres of New Mexico, at least 50,000 acres more than Turner.
That's the big news from a pioneering Crosswinds project focusing on this question:
Who owns New Mexico?
Crosswinds set out to identify the state's 40 largest private individual or family landowners by acreage and provide some sense of their histories. To our knowledge, such a project concentrating exclusively on New Mexico never before has been published.
As the nation's fifth-largest state, New Mexico contains 121,335 square miles, or 77.7 million acres. That's 3 1/3% of the entire country. Put another way, there are nearly 50 acres of New Mexico for every single man, woman and child here. That's a lot of land.
In many ways, however, the histories are more important than the numbers. These accounts portray the panoramic sweep of the New Mexico experience. Our essays include tales of fatal gunfights, political intrigue, risks taken and failed, luck, famous inventions, family dynasties, obligatory connections to Billy The Kid, tragedies, carpetbaggers, alleged UFO crashes and, of course, an abiding faith in the permanence of terra firma.
On the other hand, you can't ignore the numbers. The 40 families or individuals on our list own a total of 5.5 million acres of New Mexico. That works out to 7% of the entire state but 16% of the state's privately owned acreage.
Less than half is in private hands anyway
In New Mexico, only about 44% of the acreage, or 33.9 million acres, is outside the clutches of federal, state and local government--especially the Federal Government. West of the Rio Grande all the way to the Arizona state line, the overwhelming bulk of the acreage is held by government, much of it connected to the huge Indian reservations. East of the Rio Grande and south of Interstate 40, a bit more than half the land is government, most notable the White Sands Missile Range and various forest lands. By contrast, east of the Rio Grande and north of Interstate 40, only a small portion is owned by government. And this is where 25 of our 40 listees have holdings.
Besides any unit of government and the Indian tribes, we excluded holdings of publicly traded corporations, utilities, private corporations not dominated by an individual or a family, widely held partnerships, and non-profit entities such as foundations and religious organizations. The form of ownership--individual, corporation, partnership or trust--was irrelevant so long as the benefit of the holding rested with an individual or two or a family.
How we figured
We counted only deeded acreage and not land leased from governmental agencies or other private landowners. We're not writing about renters. Nor did we want to write only about hotsy-totsy developers in Santa Fe or Albuquerque, so we looked for acreage, not value. Because there is always a certain margin of error to this kind of research, we rounded to the nearest 5,000 acres. Our cutoff point worked out to be 35,000 acres. With 640 acres to a square mile, our minimum is about 55 square miles -- roughly a square 7 1/2 miles along each side.
As you would expect, all of these holdings are essentially livestock ranches, cattle or sheep or horses, with some farming and other uses. There is a simple reason for this. You can't do much else with land far from population areas that doesn't have a lot of rain or underground water. Even then, it can take dozens of acres to support one cow-calf unit.
But you have to give New Mexico ranch operators considerable credit for perseverance. The livestock business in New Mexico actually dates back to 1540 when the military explorer Francisco Vasques Coronado brought up some sheep and horses from Mexico. If you don't consider Coronado as our first tourist, ranching is New Mexico's only 450-year-old industry.
We won't try to detail the tortured overall history of land ownership in New Mexico, except to note a few basic facts. Historically, vast chunks of land were granted to private citizens as either a reward for services rendered, a payoff for political support or as a means by which a government solidified its influence over a region. These grants often conflicted with what Indian tribes and pueblos saw as their property rights from time immemorial. From the 1500s until the advent of U.S. control in the 1840s, various Spanish and then Mexican rulers made hundreds of land grants covering millions of acres.
This created great controversy. Usually, the grants were unsurveyed and they often overlapped one another. Indian rights were not always considered. Not every grant recipient fulfilled the specified conditions to get clear title, such as taking up residence and engaging in agriculture. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the 1848 agreement that ended the Mexican War and ceded most of what is now New Mexico to the United States, protected grant holders who had perfected their titles. But the U.S. Senate refused to ratify a provision that would have vested grantees merely in the process. Indeed, much of New Mexico's vast federal acreage today is the result of disallowed Mexican or Spanish land grants.
The result was decades of litigation--and fraud, as all kinds of dubious documents surfaced in purported support of these ancient rights. An article published nationally in 1885, ``Land Stealing in New Mexico,'' caused a sensation. New Mexico lawyer Thomas B. Catron gained wealth and political power--he later became a U.S. Senator and a county on the Arizona border is named for him--partly due to his uncanny ability to defend old land claims, often in exchange for a piece of the action. In 1894 The Santa Fe New Mexican reported he owned about 2 million acres and was part-owner or lawyer for owners of another 4 million acres.
Decades of boom and bust
We don't know of anyone today with 2 million acres of New Mexico, although oilman Robert O. Anderson, now of Roswell, may have been in that league until his fortune collapsed a few years ago. Decades of boom and bust have forced the division and sale of many large spreads. But since territorial days, New Mexico tax policy has been heavily skewed in favor of big landowners. Property taxes are relatively low, offset by sky-high state income taxes and a gross receipts tax that unlike those in many other states does not exempt foodstuffs, clothing or clothing. Nor do you have to be filthy rich to own significant land in New Mexico. It's not surprising that only two persons on this list—William D. Sanders and John Yates—made the Crosswinds list last fall of the state's 25 richest persons.
Moreover, a full 30% of our list live outside New Mexico, where, perhaps, capital is easier to come by.
As part of our research, we talked with county tax assessors, appraisers and other land experts. Members of our team made hundreds of telephone calls, visited some of the state's 33 county courthouses to examine land records and poured through library holdings. In some cases we had to make judgment calls about whether to amass lands of disparate family members for the purpose of this list. That's why, for example, the many branches of the Perez families of Torrance and Guadalupe Counties aren't here.
One big caveat: While clearly we have identified the overwhelming bulk of the largest individual and family landholdings in the state, we really can't guarantee that we have found them all. While we tried to confirm acreages in some cases we relied on knowledgeable estimates from land experts. Believe or not, evaluating large landholdings is almost as much art as science.
William P. Barrett is the Special Projects Editor of Crosswinds. He is a veteran journalist for national publications, most recently as a Worth magazine contributing editor. This month Barrett rejoins Forbes magazine as an associate editor. He has since relocated to the Los Angeles area.
Juliet Casey, Daniel J. Chacon, Nick Kryloff, Dan McCay, Susan Montoya and Martin Salazar are Special Projects Reporters for Crosswinds. All six, students at the University of New Mexico, worked as editors or reporters on the New Mexico Daily Lobo, the student newspaper. Kryloff and Barrett last wrote for Crosswinds in October when they and Ray Langley co-authored The Crosswinds 25, a list of the state's richest persons.
We are grateful to Worth magazine, which in March published a pioneering list of the country's 100 largest landowners, including 12 on this list. Other useful sources included the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and the New Mexico State Library and the State Corporation Commission, both in Santa Fe.
Publications we consulted--and hereby acknowledge--include the Albuquerque Journal, The Albuquerque Tribune, the Amarillo Globe-News, the Artesia Daily Press, the Cibola County Beacon, the Lincoln County News, New Mexico Magazine, the Quay County Sun, the defunct Roswell Morning Dispatch, The Santa Fe New Mexican, the Santa Fe Reporter and the Santa Rosa News.
National or out-of-state publications include Forbes, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Muncie Star-Press.
The CROSSWINDS 40
1. Henry Singleton, Beverly Hills CA, 1,200,000 acres
2. R.E. (Ted) Turner, Roswell GA, 1,150,000 acres
3. Lee family, San Mateo NM, 300,000 acres
4. Lane family, Solano NM, Lake Forest IL, elsewhere, 290,000 acres
5. Bidegain family, Tucumcari NM, 180,000 acres
6. King family, Stanley NM, 170,000 acres
7. Huning family, Los Lunas NM, 160,000 acres
8. Michael Mechenbier, Albuquerque NM, 135,000 acres
9. Leslie & Linda Davis, Cimmaron NM 125,000 acres
10. Bogle family, Dexter NM, 100,000 acres
11. John Yates family, Mayhill NM, elsewhere, 100,000 acres
12. Dunigan family, Abilene TX, 95,000 acres
13. Wesley D. Adams, Logandale NV, 95,000 acres
14. Butler heirs, Massachusetts, elsewhere, 95,000 acres
15. J.A. Whittenburg III, Dallas TX and Amarillo TX, 85,000 acres
16. Corn family, Roswell NM 85,000 acres
17. R.A. (Hap) Canning, Capitan NM, 65,000 acres
18. Brittingham family, Anton Chico NM, 60,000 acres
19. Doherty family, Folsom NM, 60,000 acres
20. Jay Taylor family, Albuquerque NM, Amarillo TX, 60,000 acres
21. Baeza family, Chihuahua, Chihuahua Mexico, 55,000 acres
22. Mitchell family, Albert NM, 55,000 acres
23. Colin McMillan & Benjamin Rummerfield, Roswell NM, Tulsa OK, 55,000 acres
24. Sam Britt, Grenville NM, 50,000 acres
25. Moise family, Albuquerque NM, 50,000 acres
26. Sam Donaldson, McLean VA, 45,000 acres
27. William D. Sanders, Santa Fe NM & El Paso TX, 45,000 acres
28. Cain family, Belen NM, Mountainair NM, elsewhere, 45,000 acres
29. Baldrige family, Cedar Crest NM, Hygiene CO, elsewhere, 45,000 acres
30. Edmund F. Ball, Muncie IN, 45,000 acres
31. Mike & Deborah Smith, Pampa TX, 40,000 acres
32. David Salman family, Mora NM, 40,000 acres
33. Frank Chappell, Waterford CT, 40,000 acres
34. Mike Fitzgerald, Mosquero NM, 40,000 acres
35. James family, Logan NM, 40,000 acres
36. Huling (Jupe) Means, Mule Creek NM, 40,000 acres
37. Spires family, Cliff NM, Ruidoso NM, Snyder TX, 40,000 acres
38. Wootten family, Springer NM, 35,000 acres
39. Floyd Blackburn, Dumas TX, 35,000 acres
40. Carl Lane Johnson, Tatum NM, 35,000 acres
From CROSSWINDS, New Mexico’s largest alternative newspaper
June 1997 Copyright 1997 Crosswinds Inc. All rights reserved
By William P. Barrett, Juliet Casey, Daniel J. Chacon, Nick Kryloff, Dan McKay, Susan Montoya and Martin Salazar
New mexico’s 40 largest private landowners
AND APPARENTLY LIVING In roswell n.m.