John Malone purchases 53,524-acre Frontier Forest in the western mountains

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News ( 5/22/02

Kent Wommack, head of The Nature Conservancy’s Maine chapter, said that Malone will be "a good steward. I would much rather see a long-term, conservation-minded investor like John Malone purchase important tracts in Maine than a liquidation harvester."
(Frontier Forest photos from LandVest website.)

Billionaire entrepreneur John C. Malone has purchased the 53,524-acre Frontier Forest in the western mountains from Great Eastern Timber Co., LLC, an entity of the John Hancock Life Insurance Co. The property – with significant ecological and recreational resources -- is the second landmark tract Malone has acquired in Maine and is a major addition to his U. S. holdings.

Malone’s purchase may re-trigger the debate over "kingdom buyers" that began several years ago when he acquired 15,000 acres around Spencer Lake, south of the new parcel. Sportsmen raised concerns then that their traditional access might be cut off, but Malone has allowed the public to recreate as long as they are respectful of the property. That policy will continue on the Frontier Forest, said Gary Bahlkow of LandVest, the company that oversees Malone’s Maine land.

Malone’s interest in land conservation appears to be growing, as his land holdings top more than 100,000 acres in Maine and several western states. Last winter, he became a director of The Nature Conservancy’s national board. Kent Wommack, head of TNC’s Maine chapter, said that Malone will be "a good steward. It’s good news that he is the buyer."

"I would much rather see a long-term, conservation-minded investor like John Malone purchase important tracts in Maine than a liquidation harvester," Wommack said. There had been rumors that a logging contractor was buying the land, and environmentalists and residents of the Jackman area feared that the forest might be cut hard and subdivided for development.

Malone purchased the land through a new entity, Frontier Forest LLC. Henry Whittemore of Hancock Natural Resource Group confirmed the sale. The Somerset County Registry of Deeds said the date of transfer was May 16 – two weeks after Frontier Forest LLC was registered with the Secretary of State’s Corporation Division. The agent listed for Frontier Forest was David B. Soule Jr., a Wiscasset attorney who handles Malone’s other Maine land entity, Mosquito LLC. Soule said he couldn’t comment on the land purchase.

The Frontier tract may be the largest single land purchase Malone has made anywhere.

LandVest marketed the Frontier Forest at $17,750,000, or $330 an acre. What Malone paid for it won’t be known until the state sales tax document reaches the property tax office in Augusta in two or three weeks. Likely the figure tops the $13.5 million Malone paid for the Spencer Lake land.

Malone bought his first big forestland parcel from Plum Creek Timber, paying $10.5 million for 7,500 acres, or $1,333 an acre, around the northern half of the five-mile-long lake, including Fish Pond and a private boat launch that the previous owner, SAPPI, had kept available for public use. Four years earlier, he had purchased another 7,400 acres around the southern end of the lake from International Paper for nearly $3.5 million, about $456 an acre. Those prices were considerably more than the $200 to $500 an acre that commercial forestland has generally sold for in recent years.

Hancock decided to sell a portion of its Maine lands a couple of years ago. The possibility of a sale to a timber liquidator or developer caused residents and business owners in the Jackman area to form the Frontier Mountain Alliance. They wanted the state to acquire the parcel.

Ralph Knoll, land acquisitions supervisor for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, said an effort was mounted behind-the-scenes to find a conservation buyer. It was successful, and the individual made an offer, but it was rejected. The state is still interested in possible conservation easements on parts of the Frontier Forest, he said, "to compliment and supplement existing public lands" in the area.

Honor Sage, speaking for the Frontier Mountain Alliance, affirmed that the group would like to work with Malone "to insure that we respect his goals for his property" and to talk about protection of the land’s special values. The local alliance is pleased that the property was sold intact, she said, adding that to have it remain open for hunting and fishing and other long-time uses "is the best we could ask for."

Karin Tilberg, Maine director of the Northern Forest Allianace, said, "It would be wonderful if [Malone] would meet with [Jackman area] citizens to discuss his conservation goals. It'’ clear he has a love of the area." George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman Alliance of Maine (SAM), was in Canada and couldn’t be reached for comment.

Malone’s Frontier Forest, on the western Maine and Quebec border, is mountainous and sprinkled with ponds, lakes and streams.

The Frontier tract may be the largest single land purchase Malone has made anywhere, but he owns thousands of acres in Colorado, where his business is headquartered. In a rare interview in the High Plains Rider of Elizabeth, Colorado, in July, 1999, Malone said he owns 45,000 acres along the Front Range in Elbert and El Paso counties. He has thousands of Angus cattle at his Colorado ranch but said he intended to put conservation easements "on a substantial part of the land . . . because we are preservationists." The ranch was an investment, he said, "but primarily it's for conservation."

Malone told the paper that he also had bought a ranch in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming and one in New Mexico. He mentioned spending time in Maine. Malone has a home on 220 acres in coastal Boothbay Harbor and acquired the Boothbay Region Boatyard Inc. The family has a compound on Spencer Lake that formerly was Falcon sporting lodge. Malone also owns the Mosquito islands in Penobscot Bay, Tibbett Island in Back River in Boothbay and land in Edgecomb. He has helped the Boothbay land trust acquire Ovens Mouth Preserve in Boothbay and Indiantown Island on the Sheepscot river, a 60-acre prehistoric site.

When Malone bought the boatyard and proposed to expand it two years ago, he ran afoul of some abutters who were concerned about the expansion of the yard, noise, lighting and affect on property values. But things have quieted down, said Rep. Ken Honey (R-Boothbay).

Honey said Malone’s wife "stays here all summer. Nobody knows him. He loves his privacy." Malone has acquired additional land to augment his privacy, Honey said. Malone is a "silent partner" in a campground near his home, and Honey said locals speculate that it "will go out of business eventually, and he will have a private little kingdom there."

TNC’s Wommack said that Malone "is very private about his philanthropy" but confirmed that the communications media pioneer has "supported TNC work around the country." Malone’s educational philanthropy has made more news than his conservation work, but that could be changing with his land purchases in Maine.

LandVest is selling the Katahdin Forest of 32,181 acres (54 square miles) in central Maine for $11 million.. Asked if Malone was interested in that parcel, Henry Whittemore declined to comment. The Appalachian Mountain Club is known to be interested in the property because the Appalachian Trail runs along its border, but Whittemore wouldn’t say if he is negotiating with anyone.

Malone is one of the mega-wealthy. He was number 90 in Forbes magazine’s latest list of the 400 richest Americans, with a net worth of $2.1 billlion. Malone sold his cable television firm Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI) to AT&T in 1998 for $54 billion. He is currently chairman of the media investment company, Liberty Media, that he spun off from TCI. Most recently, Malone has purchased cable systems in Europe. Malone is a director at AT&T, the Bank of New York, the Cato Institute (a Washington libertarian think tank), and Discovery Communications.

Malone grew up in Milford, Conn., and is a 1963 graduate of Yale University’s electrical engineering program and a 1965 graduate of a master’s program in industrial manufacturing from New York University. He obtained his doctorate in operations research from Johns Hopkins University in 1967.

He is a major philanthropist to educational institutions through the Malone Family Foundation. He gave $24 million to Yale not long ago for its new engineering building and gifts to the Malone Science Center and the Magness Institute at the Cable Center at the University of Denver.

Malone’s Frontier Forest, on the western Maine and Quebec border, is mountainous and sprinkled with ponds, lakes and streams. Among the 11 sizeable ponds on the property are Little Big Wood, Wood, Turner and McKenney. Three major streams – Gulf, Wood and Sandy – flow into the Moose River, home of the famed Bow canoe trip. The Malone land abuts the Holeb public lands unit and the Attean Township lands under a conservation easement. The major access is the Holeb Road, a four-season gravel artery used by logging trucks and private recreational vehicles. According to the LandVest’s advertising brochure, the Frontier Forest has an estimated inventory of 630,501 cords of wood, or 17 cords per acre. The timber base includes 19,295 acres of hardwoods, dominated by sugar maple and yellow birch; 24,403 acres of mixed softwood and hardwood; and 6,058 acres of spruce-fir forest. Gary Bahlkow said that no specific management plan for the new owner has been drawn up yet.