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The new frontier

The dynastic model of U.S. land ownership is changing

Stone Canyon Ranch, one of the largest privately owned luxury estates in the country, lies about an hour’s drive from the nearest commercial runway. To get there, you motor north from Monterey Regional Airport along the California coast, through Sand City and up past Seaside, where Route 1 bends inland to skirt the Fort Ord Dunes. Speeding there, through morning fog that can be dense enough to obscure the water, is exhilarating. But it also induces a degree of dread. You feel viscerally that you’ve come to the end of the land—that you’re at the edge of something ungovernable—and when the route turns rural, cutting east through fields of Brussels sprouts, strawberries, and apricots, the effect is soothing.

Encompassing more than 10,000 acres, Stone Canyon Ranch sits just off a state road known as Airline Highway, some 13 miles south of the 19th-century frontier town of Tres Pinos. Tres Pinos was once rambunctious, complete with a stagecoach stop, rodeo grounds, and a brothel catering to cowboys and ranchers. Today, it is inhabited by fewer than 500 people. Its main drag retains a flavor of the old West: Dirt lots emit dust clouds and wooden porches apron storefronts.

Stone Canyon Ranch is less humble—a grand sprawl that progresses from lavish landscaping around the ranch’s main compound to virtually untouched wilderness.

I headed there not long ago to glean what I could about a fantasy that has long held sway in the American imagination—that of owning great tracts of uninhabited land. I’d been communicating with representatives of some of the country’s more prominent landholding dynasties: the cattle ranching Klebergs of Texas and the West Coast lumber barons, the Reeds. I’d spoken with brokers employed by Southwestern agricultural tycoons, and acquired a copy of The Land Report magazine’s latest list of the 100 largest landowners in the country.

It struck me as odd that so much territory should be controlled—and cultivated—by families utterly unfamiliar to most Americans: the Singletons (1.1 million acres, New Mexico and California, cows and calves); the Pingrees (830,000 acres, Maine, forestry); the Lykes (615,000 acres, Florida and Texas, oranges and beef). Together, the families that fill out The Land Report’s top 10 own an agglomeration of territory that rivals the state of West Virginia for acreage. I wondered what it would be like to draw sustenance from property so vast that even its owners might not see it all in one lifetime. It is difficult, however, to interest scions of frontier empire in on-the-record discussions of such matters. One advantage of acreage has always been that it provides a buffer.

And yet, these frontier empires are changing. Since roughly the 1970s, the nation’s largest rural properties have been passing at an increasing rate from powerful, if relatively anonymous, agricultural families to owners with more urban, corporate backgrounds. In 2014, a pair of New Mexico properties inspired a bidding war between two billionaires: Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Bobby Patton, who emerged with the 174,000-acre York Ranch; and the home builder Donald Horton, who won the 292,779-acre Great Western. In 2012, the 124,000-acre Broken O Ranch, in Montana, sold to real estate mogul Stan Kroenke; in 2016, Kroenke, who also owns five professional sports teams, went on to acquire the Waggoner Ranch, which spans 510,527 acres across six Texas counties. With more than 4 million acres between them, the cable kingpins Ted Turner and John Malone are the largest landowners in the country.

Michael Hall, a third-generation member of Hall and Hall, a brokerage specializing in Western ranches, told me that clients buying for recreational purposes now account for more than 80 percent of his business—a pronounced shift. He traces the phenomenon to increased visitorship to places like Sun Valley, Idaho, and Jackson, Wyoming: “People in the metro areas that have made a lot of money would get introduced to [the lifestyle] that way, and as time has gone on, people started looking for larger acreages, rather than just a house.” Micah Brady, a broker dealing in vineyards and ranches around Santa Barbara, California, added, “For the first 10 or 15 years I was in the business, it was more people interested in using the property for working purposes…. The last half-dozen years, it’s a more affluent buyer. Rather than an equestrian facility, people just want to have a few horses—it’s part of the experience.”

George R. Roberts, the owner of Stone Canyon Ranch, is a co-founder of the private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. He bought the property in the 1990s, intending to create a hybrid of old world and new: a luxury working ranch, with sumptuous accommodations and a going equestrian concern. Ironically, greenhorn owners like him are, by virtue of their wealth, not-infrequently best equipped to maintain the country’s most sprawling properties. And like the members of many of the old landowning dynasties, Roberts hoped to bequeath the ranch to his children. But like the children of many big landowners, Roberts’s kids don’t want to assume responsibility, and Roberts has now been trying to sell the place for several years.

He is not what you’d call a motivated seller; in 2015, Roberts reportedly earned about $200 million, and he hasn’t much lowered his price, which currently stands at $26.5 million. But his patience has less to do with money than with preserving the spirit of the place. In a message relayed by Steven Mavromihalis, Roberts’s real estate broker for the property, Roberts told me, “Our desire is to entrust the future of Stone Canyon to a family who will preserve the unique character of its vast, wild property.” (Roberts agreed to answer questions only through an intermediary, and by email.)

I heard this sentiment—a commitment to a kind of earthy originalism—echoed by several landowners. Though they all expressed an interest in conservation, they frequently struggled to explain their devotion to their land as-is. Often, it seemed bound up in some ineffable sense of connection to a mythic, if checkered, past. “Candidly,” Roberts continued, “we could break up the property into smaller parcels, but this would damage … what is most special about Stone Canyon Ranch.”

At the foot of the access road that winds to the ridgeline where Stone Canyon’s main compound is perched, I met Vail Bello, a mild-mannered former police officer and a veteran of SWAT and bomb-detonation squads, who tends to Roberts’s security and also oversees the ranch’s numerous caretakers. Solid and gray-mustachioed, Bello wore a golf shirt and faded jeans. Before long, we were joined by Mavromihalis, and we ascended. Bello is known at the fire department where he volunteers as a coffee snob, with a habit of toting a stainless steel percolator. In the 5,000-square-foot three-bedroom guest quarters that stand adjacent the main residence—a roughly 7,900-square-foot one-bedroom rancher—he proceeded swiftly to the kitchen to brew espresso.

The compound is a modernist affair of clean geometry and vaulted ceilings. It was completed in the early ’90s, with a design by the lauded San Francisco architect Ugo Sap. The materials reflect the character of the landscape, which is big-skied, with dramatic hills that are intermittently lush and sun-scorched, bristling with sagebrush. The rooftops are French slate. Floors are done in Italian limestone. Open plans, a soft palette, and floor-to-ceiling windows set in solid-mahogany casements take advantage of the San Benito Valley’s ample sunshine.

In the main residence, a throughline connects the public spaces. Each has a pitched roof whose ceilings have been lined with blond lumber, suggesting an impossibly refined barn. Each roof extends to a trellis of Alaskan cedar set on concrete posts. On each trellis grows a vine of hardy wisteria that periodically threatens to overwhelm its host. A wood-burning fireplace occupies practically every room.

The interior spaces absorb the locale’s bright airiness, but their primary achievement is to direct the occupant’s gaze outward. The most transfixing views extend beyond the home’s manicured footprint—dense with gardens and mature trees and sculpted hillocks—to where the land is essentially wild. Through the windows in the master bedroom you can see a small grove of olive trees. Beside it stands an enigmatic igloo-like rock sculpture by the British artist Andy Goldsworthy. Noted for his site-specific outdoor work, Goldsworthy is known for weighty pronouncements on nature: “A stone is ingrained with geological and historical memories.”

The ranch is made up of nearly three dozen contiguous parcels encompassing more than 15 square miles—an area roughly one-third the size of San Francisco. The steep valley from which it takes its name is thought to have been named, in turn, for William H. Stone, one of the first white settlers of San Benito County. A Gold Rush pioneer and a veteran of the redwood lumber camps at Santa Cruz, Stone had come west from Boone, Missouri.

Roberts and his late first wife, Leanne Bovet Roberts, who died in 2003, made the ranch their own, taking years—with the assistance of countless builders and landscapers—to synthesize its blend of luxury and wilderness. An accomplished equestrian and a regular on the San Francisco philanthropy circuit, Bovet Roberts often spent weekends at Stone Canyon, overseeing an operation that bred quarter horses for reining competitions. The ranch largely reflects her vision. “This place is like a small country,” said Mavromihalis, taking it all in. “You’re basically a king here.”

The area around Stone Canyon Ranch played a role in the growth of this country from a small nation into a very large one. In the early 1840s, with Manifest Destiny in the air, Monterey was the capital of Alta California, a territory comprising the modern state plus additional land to the east. All of it was under the tenuous control of Mexico, which was then embroiled in political turmoil. With its home country in disorder, Alta California seemed ripe for annexation by a more stable power. The U.S. government hoped to be that power, and in March 1846, John C. Frémont, a military officer who’d helped blaze the Oregon Trail, prepared to attack Monterey with a band of 60 men. Faced with artillery he hadn’t anticipated, Frémont ultimately retreated. But the incident, among others—most notably a skirmish along the Rio Grande that April involving Mexican cavalry and U.S. soldiers under the command of Gen. Zachary Taylor—stoked mutual antagonism, and the U.S. and Mexico were soon at war.

In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War, bringing the U.S. some 525,000 square miles of new territory, including all or part of modern Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming. In many cases, existing deeds of ownership were grandfathered in. In California, New Mexico, and Texas, these included land grants that had been distributed by the Spanish and Mexican governments beginning in the 1700s to encourage settlement. The provisions were often massive. In states without Spanish and Mexican land grants, larger tracts were assembled from old mining claims and individual 160-acre tracts distributed through the Homestead Act of 1862. As enterprising Americans pushed west, such properties sometimes became the kernels of private empire.

In 1853, an Alabama steamboat captain named Richard King bought a 15,500-acre Spanish grant in Texas that would grow to become the King Ranch. It now covers an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. An hour’s drive west of Albuquerque lies the Lobo Ranch, a 46,000-acre preserve of cattle and big game that was originally part of the Cebolleta Land Grant of 1800, and which was recently listed for sale at nearly $26 million. Among the California holdings of the Singleton family are the Peachtree and Topo ranches. They total some 90,000 acres, and can be traced to the Mexican San Lorenzo grant of 1842. According to the records of the University of California, 19 Mexican land grants, totaling more than 300,000 acres, were distributed in what is now San Benito County, California. It is unclear which of them, if any, are represented in Stone Canyon Ranch. But among its legacy advantages, Stone Canyon counts water rights to the San Benito River that predate the Gold Rush.

When we finished touring the compound, I climbed into the passenger seat of Vail Bello’s black Denali, and we drove down the ranch’s curving access road, past disused equestrian facilities to an unpaved artery that threads a long, narrow valley. Heavy rain in recent weeks had made much of the property inaccessible by car. But the day was bright and warm, and the land’s rugged allure was apparent just a few miles west of Airline Highway. The dirt road was crisscrossed in places by Stone Canyon Creek, running higher and faster than Bello had lately seen it. We bumped along leisurely with the windows down.

At night, Bello said, wild pigs come into the canyon, moving through fields of high grass. If you wanted, you could shoot them—and the wild turkeys that wander there, too. Roberts doesn’t hunt. But the cougars, bears, and coyotes surely do. Overhead, eagles, vultures, and California condors bank. Everyone watches their steps for rattlesnakes. An employee regularly walks the property, sweeping for poachers and other mischief. He finds evidence of the American Indians who once lived there or passed through.

In his email, Roberts wrote of the joy of riding a horse “without crossing a fence,” a paean to continuity I heard echoed in the fears of other landowners. “Fragmentation is something that bothers me,” Chuck Leavell told me. “It usually ends up with some kind of development on the land.” Leavell, a keyboardist and vocalist, was a member of the Allman Brothers Band during the group’s 1970s heyday. With his wife, Rose Lane, he owns some 3,000 wooded acres near Macon, Georgia. The property, Charlane Plantation, grew from a parcel of roughly 1,000 acres, some of which has been in Rose Lane’s family since before the Civil War. Leavell had no prior agricultural experience, but he has immersed himself in cultivating timber to help finance the land’s upkeep. He hopes that when the property passes to his two daughters, a trust might be established to avoid splitting it up.

Circumstances sometimes demand even more creative solutions. Peter De Cabooter is an owner of a Wyoming ranch that has been in the same family—in various iterations—since 1906. It encompasses tens of thousands of acres, containing cattle, a long-running horse-breeding operation, and, since 1992, a guest ranch. De Cabooter tends mostly to the latter, which was established to secure the property’s long-term economic viability. “The idea is not so much: I’m going to accumulate all this land to be able to sell this land,” De Cabooter said. “It’s so that it’s sustainable and a couple of families can live on this land, and have income to hire professional staff that also have families.”

In southern Arizona, John Riggs is trying to muster funding for the Mare Pasture, a prospective development of more than 1,000 acres that would include residences, vineyards, and university facilities. Riggs envisions the project as an engine to facilitate the purchase of conservation easements—legal agreements that would protect his land in perpetuity. Riggs’s great grandfather came to the Southwest in 1879. Riggs, an architect, was raised not more than a mile from where his great grandfather settled. Today, his family owns more than 300,000 acres between Arizona and New Mexico.

Riggs’s father, who went by Stark, was a rancher, and Riggs’s opposition to development seems to arise as much from filial duty as from a kind of aesthetic environmentalism. “North of our [Arizona] ranchland, and south, too, you can find these 40-acre subdivisions,” said Riggs. “It hasn’t happened in our immediate area, I think, because of the love that we have for the land, and the desire to see it go to the next generation, and the next, and the next, and to see it stay pristine. I know that my dad felt that way strongly. I know that my aunt felt that way very, very strongly. What [subdivision] does is it destroys the view-shed: where you can look 360 degrees, in any direction, and see hardly any structure—just valley, rolling all the way to the mountains.”

In Where I Was From, her book-length 2003 essay about her native California, Joan Didion dissects the myths that have been central to the identity of the state and its people: proud iconoclasm, a tendency toward progress, fierce self-reliance coupled with suspicion of government. As is her wont, Didion finds little in the record to support the received narrative. The unvarnished story of frontier-era land crossings more reflects “artless horror and constricted moral horizon” than the “inspirational improvement” that Californians tend to prefer. The wealth of early agricultural tycoons can be traced at least as much to fast-and-loose dealmaking and massive public subsidies as to bootstrapping.

Didion gives the subdivision of the big California ranches, which coincided with a post-World War II population boom, extended treatment, casting a critical eye on her own feelings about the subject. Her 1963 novel, Run River, concerns the Knights, a family—like Didion’s—whose California roots date to pioneer days. Her protagonist is Lily McClellan (nee Knight), who’s married into another old California clan. By 1959, Didion writes in Where I Was From, “the pear orchards on which Lily herself grew up are being relentlessly uprooted: her mother is selling off the acreage for development as fast as the bank will allow her to subordinate it.”

In the context of the novel, Didion reflects, these changes are “understood to mean decline.” Four decades after the book’s publication, she concludes that this was wrongheaded—part of “a tenacious (and, as I see it now, pernicious) mood of nostalgia.” Run River contains the “persistent suggestion” that postwar changes had been “resisted by ‘true’ Californians.” But, she hedges, “had not any such resistance been confined to the retrospect? Were not ‘changes’ and ‘boom years’ what the California experience had been about since the first American settlement?”

Didion set her initial nostalgia in opposition to what, in Where I Was From, she calls “new people,” those who arrived to occupy—or profit from—the subdivisions. It was undemocratic as all nostalgia is undemocratic: a yearning for a private past unsullied by the traffic of the interim. Writers less inclined than Didion to revisit, revise, and contradict their old work simply send it downstream, the inalterable expression of a particular intelligence and sensibility. Before long, it becomes the record of a person who has otherwise disappeared from the changing world. The land baron might take a different approach. If he is lucky enough—wealthy and clever enough—he may guard against his obsolescence by ensuring that his corner of the world will always resemble the one he left behind.

Flanking the dirt road at Stone Canyon Ranch were gnarled sycamores whose massive scale and spooky warp called to mind Andy Goldsworthy’s remark about geologic memory. Elsewhere, bull pine grew among varietals of oak. Purple lupin, mustards, and fluorescent red-orange California poppies sprouted from the dirt. As we drove toward the valley’s northeastern edge, we reached an ancient shingled cabin with shattered windows and a stone chimney. A tree shuttled through its roof. Some think that William H. Stone, who first homesteaded the surrounding land in the late 1850s, lived there with his wife, Hanna, the daughter of another Gold Rush pioneer. Bello speculated that it had been used by cowboys tuckered from days herding cattle on the 101 Ranch, which occupied the territory somewhat later.

The parcels that compose the estates of the modern land barons began as wild, unprotected plots, claimed by ragged, ambitious men. Particularly in severe Western states, adequate shelter and sustenance were not assured. It was in part through the failure, exhaustion, and death of some homesteaders that others saw their holdings grow vast. “When you think back to the men who tried to break that ground with a horse and chisel plow, it’s just astonishing,” Tim Murphy, a Montana ranch broker, told me. “These are lonely places today. Back then, they must have felt like the moon.”

At a swing gate, Bello and I got out of his truck. During the drive he’d told me about his preferred method of preparing wild turkey (smoking it), and how best to dispose of unwanted explosives (with larger explosives). Now, I stood beside him as he pointed down the road, in the direction from which we’d come. We could see the Stone Canyon compound, resplendent in the sun. Bello said that it made a stunning impression after sundown, when the sky and the land were silent, dark but for stars. “It’s really something,” he said. “From here, at night, when it’s all lit up, it looks like a cruise ship going through the ocean.”

Editor: Sara Polsky


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