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The fabulously wealthy are fueling a booming luxury ranch market out West

·16 min read

DUBOIS, Wyo. - On a quiet stretch of handsome Western highway, ranch broker Jim Taylor drives his dust-caked SUV while highlighting the attractions in this region of few people, abundant cattle and some of the nation's priciest parcels of coveted land. "Sold that ranch," he says, pointing north. A few miles later, Taylor gestures south toward a weathered jackleg fence that stretches endlessly into the distance. "That ranch, too. Actually, sold it twice."

And so it goes for three days, crisscrossing the Continental Divide through Wyoming, Idaho and Taylor's native Montana, where the fabulously wealthy spend millions on the rustic life. On this particular cloudless afternoon last month, he's on his way to a new listing, the Diamond G Ranch, one of the few properties of its caliber available in a fevered market. It's 10 miles down a private road to reach the main lodge situated on 5,000 gasp-inducing acres with a barn, guesthouses and manager's residence. The property is John Ford-worthy, the territory of myth and dreams, a verdant valley teeming with wildlife under a trio of spectacular 11,000-foot peaks. List price: $71 million.

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America remains one of the last countries where so many individuals own colossal swaths of land, some controlling acreage larger than Delaware. The West, a lodestar in the nation's story, holds an enduring allure for modern land barons. It's where the notion of American exceptionalism and pioneer masculinity are burnished in myth, movies, television, land acquisition, country music laments and so much truck advertising. A dazzling ranch has become a weekend oasis for rich men - and they're mostly men - to realize their cowboy dreams.

Americans have long looked West to enrich their holdings, panning for mineral rights. The Rockefellers accumulated massive fiefdoms of land, eventually donating much of their holdings to the National Park Service. But the pandemic prompted a Western land grab, with moguls fleeing the cities for homes on the range. Demand remains high. The challenge is inventory. In this region of big spreads, there's little.

The nation is home to 735 billionaires (according to Forbes) and plenty of quasi-billionaires, and many of them are buying. (Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos has amassed 420,000 acres in Far West Texas around his Blue Origin suborbital spaceflight company, making him the nation's 24th largest landowner.) The private plane market is booming, making it easier for the wealthy to travel from one of their places to the others. Many of them like to tour prospective properties by helicopter, rented for $4,600 an hour, billed to the client. In this Gilded Age, titans want to get dirty and dusty and wade hip-deep into a stream. They're acquiring properties that require two days to traverse by horse.

In 2007, the 100 largest private landowners owned a combined 27 million acres of property. Fourteen years later, they control 42.2 million acres, according to the Land Report, the publication of private land ownership - an increase of 56%.

"When people strike it rich, they want a big parcel of land," says report editor Eric O'Keefe. These hefty parcels help diversify portfolios when the stock market sinks, and are especially attractive in Wyoming, where there's no inheritance, gift, personal or corporate income tax. They allow owners to indulge in boyhood cosplay fantasies while providing winning long-term investments.

Ranches are yachts that actually appreciate. Also, they're bigger. There are plenty of brokers who will happily sell you an island, though it rarely carries that intense dudeness. Taylor's firm happens to have a Montana island for sale. The asking price: $72 million.

Taylor is a legendary ranch broker, with 50 years in the business he helped overhaul, as director of the firm Hall and Hall. Land values were long rooted in animal units, the business of ranching. Now, cattle may be an afterthought. A Western spread is about reveling in an outdoorsman paradise with spectacular views unspoiled by development.

Tall, with a tumbleweed of tousled white hair, in worn jeans and a crisp plaid button-down, the 76-year-old broker sports a singular résumé ideal for catering to his clientele. He was raised on a 30,000-acre working ranch and first educated in a one-room schoolhouse. Then, he was sent East to school, St. Paul's prep in New Hampshire, and later attended Yale. Taylor did stints as a polo player, and apprenticed briefly on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange; he liked the former far more than the latter. His Kenyan-raised wife, Anne, specializes in boutique international travel, as do their two grown daughters.

Taylor's first major deal, which helped transform the market, was in 1979 with Malcolm Forbes, a Jersey blue blood with a Western hankering, who sold 11,000 acres adjacent to Yellowstone National Park, back when $7.2 million was serious coin for a ranch. Taylor and his firm completed a dozen deals with Ted Turner, who ultimately amassed 2 million acres in five states (as well as Argentina). Besides founding CNN and impressively wooing Jane Fonda, buying ranches and breeding bison became Turner's legacy in the American mind-set.

Turner proved a dream client. "Ted certainly never let price stand in the way of anything," Taylor says.

Other famous people followed his lead, buying ranches all over the West: Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, David Letterman, Tom Brokaw, Michael Keaton, Kanye West, John Mayer, the late Peter Fonda, plus a heavy salting of the Forbes 400.

Competition proved to be a valuable accelerant. "John Malone blames Ted Turner for getting him into the ranch business," O'Keefe says. The former cable king is the nation's second-largest private landowner, with 2.2 million acres held in a family preservation foundation. "We tell buyers, 'Your buddy has 8,000 acres so we know you can't buy less than that,' " says Greg Fay of the Fay Ranches brokerage. "It's a funny joke but it does seem to work." (Representatives for Malone and Turner did not respond to requests for comment.)

Some owners accumulate a collection of ranches to satisfy seasonal needs the way other people acquire jackets: a quail hunting ranch in Georgia for the winter; a Montana ranch for the spring and summer. Says Fay of his clients, "They're not subdividers. They're aggregators."

- - -

In 2016, Hall and Hall represented Stan Kroenke, owner of the L.A. Rams and Arsenal F.C., in his $725 million purchase of the historic Waggoner ranch in north Texas. The Land Report crowned it "The Deal of the Century." Says Taylor, "I never thought I'd have another year like that."

And, yet, he did.

The coronavirus pandemic prompted the rich to shop for premium open spaces and head for the hills - specifically the Rockies.

In 2020, Taylor's firm completed $1 billion in sales, despite a few dead months during the initial eruption of the pandemic. Last year? Better. Revenue more than doubled, and included handling both sides of the $200 million Beaverhead Ranch sale from Koch Industries to Rupert Murdoch, 340,000 acres cascading over three mountain ranges in Southwest Montana. "The latter half of 2020 and all of 2021 have been the strongest real estate market that any of us have experienced," the firm's website notes.

"It was too much going on all the time," says Taylor's partner Tim Murphy, who represented Murdoch. "A ranch is a living thing. It takes years to understand it. It could take years to see it all."

Hall and Hall maintains 19 offices, 25 partners, all of them men. Commissions are split among partners. Its brokers estimate that a buyer will invest up to 10% of his net worth on a ranch. When the firm lands a $200 million listing, the potential pool winnows to the apex of the Forbes 400, possibly 75 potential buyers tops. At all times, brokers know who's looking and what they can realistically afford. The majority of candidates are American, but brokers do get the occasional foreign buyer. In many other countries, there is often a paucity of private land for sale because of geography, density or government control. Try picking up a vast parcel for a weekend retreat in Belgium.

To buyers who spend their lives making deals and fielding calls, being on vacation means getting away from everything. Out here, hell is glimpsing other people, even fellow tycoons. Many homes are designed for family, not guests. It's their "Yellowstone" without the dysfunction; their "Westworld" without the dystopia. Then again, they like superior cell service - to keep making those deals - and property within 90 minutes of the Jackson Hole, Wyo., or Bozeman, Mont., airports, now choked with private planes. Dreams of rustic isolation extend only so far.

In recent years, Yellowstone has become as synonymous with privilege and exclusivity as the national park open to all. There's Taylor Sheridan's eponymous hit television sagebrush soap about a ruthless ranching titan. In January, Sheridan joined the ranching class, purchasing with a group of investors the Four Sixes Ranch in Texas, which listed for $192,202,200. Sheridan, who enlarged his television oater empire with "1883," plans a series based on the history of his new spread.

There's the luxurious Yellowstone Club, promoted as "the world's only private ski, golf and adventure community," which counts Bill Gates, Tom Brady and Ben Affleck among its fewer than 1,000 members. Even with the purchase of multimillion-dollar property on the grounds as a requirement for membership, about 20 members also own ranches.

Land adjacent to a national park or forest is coveted. Its owners can score a conservation easement, which limits development on the land and provides generous tax benefits.

"There's this popular assumption that environmental conservation is an altruistic public good - [conservation easements] are a really useful mechanism and critical - but the easements are also a vehicle for protecting wealth," says Yale professor Justin Farrell, author of "Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West." Expensive land purchases "represent an enormous social, economic and environmental transformation of the region. Not a lot of people are invested in the community."

Large ranch owners contribute relatively little in taxes in Farrell's native Wyoming, and decrease the availability of land for affordable housing. Wyoming's Teton County, home to Jackson Hole, boasts the nation's highest per capita household income, an adjusted gross of $312,442 in 2019, $100,000 higher than that of second-place Manhattan.

Should private individuals be allowed to own so much acreage while benefiting so few? Large working ranches may employ fewer than a dozen workers.

"Extreme rural gentrification does not help communities to flourish. It makes it impossible to live there," Farrell says. Bozeman, dubbed "Boz Angeles" for its coastal transplants, has become too pricey for many. Evening rush hour descending from Big Sky Resort can slow to a megalopolis crawl as hourly workers begin their long trek home to more affordable locales, sometimes in next-door Idaho. It's the opposite of how we envision the West. Instead of having wide open spaces, these towns have become racked with urban headaches. An hour and half away from Jackson Hole, all these challenges evaporate with the dust and tumbleweeds.

- - -

After passing four metal gates on a dirt road, Taylor arrives at his latest property. Thirty-five years ago, the Disney family sold the Diamond G to Stephen Gordon, a former manufacturing executive. Taylor handled the purchase. Gordon spent more than two years looking at three dozen ranches before discovering his rawhide Eden.

The Diamond G, near Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, abuts the Shoshone National Forest. It encompasses an estimated five miles of the Dunoir River, flush with brown and rainbow trout, and mountain whitefish.

"It has everything," says Taylor. "It's one of the greatest places in Wyoming." He likens its beauty, and rarity, to a Van Gogh. The ranch is where the deer and the antelope - along with the bighorn sheep and the elk - all play. Elk are a staple of property videos shot by drone and accompanied by a chest-swelling Western soundtrack. "We have more animal activity than Yellowstone," says Jon Robinett, the Diamond G's ranch manager of 33 years.

But the ranch holds more allure than wildlife. The Diamond G sales brochure devotes almost as much ink to Wyoming tax laws as it does to the "cozy" main lodge, which is dark and dated.

Frankly, the lodge is most likely a teardown - on a $71 million listing.

"A big house can be a liability," Taylor says. He advises clients to banish their opulent tendencies. Fancy and ranch tend to be mutually exclusive concepts. Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot and owner of the Atlanta Falcons, maintains a (relatively) modest home on his Paradise Valley ranch, for someone worth $7 billion. The Montana property, thick with cottonwood trees, is host to the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch, where guests pay up to $6,750 a week, per person, for pastoral charm and buckaroo romance. Then again, it isn't Blank's only spread. He owns three others on U.S. Highway 89 through Paradise Valley, which is the travel poster of Western rural living.

Architectural statements are best reserved for higher-density Jackson Hole. A modern $13 million folderol with massive plate-glass windows and little business being situated on a ranch didn't net a nickel at sale. On the road, Taylor gestures toward a Wyoming property that he sold where the owner squandered $1 million on miles of paved road. Gravel's what you want out here. The road potholed during the punishing winters and required considerable repairs. That's another challenge of these pricey ranches; few owners, given their assemblage of homes in multiple climes, opt to endure winter here.

"This is a lifestyle, not a business," says Gordon, over a lunch of cold cuts and slaw overlooking his gobsmacking view at the Diamond G. Now 79, he was born to money and minted more of it. He worked on Wall Street, dwelled on Park Avenue. A son of the city, Gordon yearned for a different life.

"I felt like I was born in the wrong place, in the wrong century," he says, in a stained felt hat and worn plaid flannel. "I wanted spectacular views. I wanted a river running through it," a reference to Norman Maclean's 1976 autobiographical story collection, and Robert Redford's 1992 film, starring a Redford-ish Brad Pitt, which launched several thousand fevered anglers' fantasies of a river of their own. Last year, the 80,000-acre Climbing Arrow Ranch, where the movie was partially filmed, listed for $136.25 million. It sold, after a bidding war, in under a week.

Gordon didn't buy his ranch to create more wealth; he used wealth to indulge his dream. "If you buy a ranch in Montana or Wyoming, the motivation is not economic," he says. "It's lifestyle. Everyone wants this."

But if you hold a prime ranch for 35 years, the sale can prove an economic bonanza. "Land is an investment in itself, a passive investment," Taylor says. "Ranching is an active investment. You're buying people, buying cows."

Gordon listed the property, which he loves dearly, because he feels it's time to downsize his life.

"Owning a ranch is driven by life stages as much as lifestyle," says Dave Johnson, one of Taylor's partners. "They tend to sell when the ranch doesn't fit the family anymore."

- - -

The day after visiting the Diamond G, Taylor travels to his other big listing, the Bar Cross in Cora, Wyo. With 12,000 deeded acres and 2,500 head of cattle, it's a $35 million working ranch with spectacular fishing on the New Fork River. The circa-1910 house, once owned by internet pioneer and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow ("Cassidy," "Mexicali Blues") and grandson of the original settler, is modest in scale ("tight," according to the sales brochure) and exquisite in detail, kicked out with a La Cornue kitchen range (list price around $13,000) and decorated with museum-quality Indigenous and Western art and furniture, all catalogued in a gallery binder and valued at an additional $3 million.

Owner Jason Spaeth, 52, a Minneapolis investor specializing in distressed credit, bought the original property in 2016 for around $10.5 million. The following year, he spent an additional $8 million to nearly double the acreage. "Everything he could do to improve the property, he did," Taylor says.

Only a few years later, Spaeth is selling to satisfy his family's wishes. His wife operates two restaurants and their three sons are engaged in sports in the Twin Cities. Early in the pandemic, the family lived at the Bar Cross for more than five months. "That will always be a special time," Spaeth says. This summer, he spent only a couple of weeks here; his family a matter of days, though they plan to return a final week this month.

"It has a special allure. It's such an important part of America's story, too. I was romantic about the West and ranches," Spaeth says. "I wanted to see if we could create an economically viable and ecologically vibrant ranch."

So, Spaeth is asked, is ranching an easy way to lose money or a hard way to make it? "It's very difficult to make money in ranching, very difficult. I'll leave it at that," he says.

Ranching eats investment. Winters are a beast. August ignites fire season. Eight people work at the Bar Cross during cattle season, including ranch manager Katie Scarbrough, one of the rare women in the business, who has a master's degree in ranch management and a 1-year-old son. A large working ranch is nothing without a top manager, particularly if the owner has other properties and businesses to attend to.

"My heart is still there. This whole thing is bittersweet," Spaeth says by phone, driving to one of his children's lacrosse tournaments in Minneapolis. "My sons never fully embraced the lifestyle and the culture. I got tired of feeling guilty when I'm here, and guilty when I'm there."

This was not his plan. "I thought I'd own it forever," he says.

In a matter of 10 days, the Bar Cross receives multiple offers.

Taylor celebrated a half century as a ranch broker in April. At the firm's spring retreat in Arizona, there were roasts and a tribute. A fuss was made. Taylor considers retiring. Then again, why stop in the most vibrant market of his career? He lives in a spacious home with spectacular views. It's not a ranch. A ranch is too much work.

The Diamond G went on the market the first week of August. During Taylor's visit, Gordon gazes at the trio of mountains that have delighted him for more than three decades.

He says, "If it doesn't sell at this price, I'll try again next year. I'm in no rush."

Jim Taylor knows better. Let the buyers descend.

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