“Buy land, they’re not making it anymore,” Mark Twain famously said, and it really sums up the number one reason land is such a wise investment. Land will always be necessary and will not vanish into thin air. Buildings and businesses come and go, but land lasts a lifetime. Considering land is a limited resource, it stands to reason that it can be a profitable investment.
In Utah, most of the land is controlled by the federal government. But who are Utah’s other largest landowners? This article uncovers Utah’s three largest landowners and other fascinating facts.
1. Federal Government – 33,000,000 Acres
The federal government owns more than 33 million acres in Utah, making it the country’s second most federally owned state.
The federal government controls 27.1% of all land in the United States, or 615.3 million acres, out of a total area of 2.27 billion. Federal lands are generally administered for conservation, recreation, and resource development. The federal government manages about 80% of Nevada, followed by 63% in Utah, 62% in Idaho, 61% in Alaska, and 53% in Oregon.
In Utah, the Bureau of Land Management, a government agency in charge of managing public lands, oversees 68.5% of all federally held land. The Forest Service controls national forests and grasslands and is in charge of 24.6% of federal land. The Fish and Wildlife Service, which maintains 0.3% of public lands, is responsible for efforts to restore and conserve endangered species, wildlife refuges, fisheries, and migratory birds. Lastly, the National Park Service maintains 6.3% of federal land, while the Department of Defense manages 0.2% of government property.
2. Robinson & Freed families – 300,000 Acres
In the mid-twentieth century, the Robinson and Freed families joined forces and co-owned 300,000 acres. Their property consists mostly of six cattle ranches in Utah.
Robert E. Freed was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, as one of four sons to Lester and Jasmine Freed. On March 25, 1950, Robert married JoAnn Robinson in Salt Lake City, and they had four sons, Mark, John, Paul, and Christopher.
Freed served in the infantry during WWII for five years, earning a battlefield commission. He was a First Lieutenant when he quit the army in 1946. Following the war, he agreed to lease the Lagoon Amusement Park in Farmington, Utah and became its operations manager in 1946. Later, he was promoted to general manager, overseeing the Terrace Ballroom and affiliated businesses. The majority of Lagoon’s expansions were overseen by Freed. He and his siblings rescued Lagoon from the verge of bankruptcy and helped transform it into a first-rate family entertainment park.
Robert died in 1974 after being diagnosed with cancer. After his death, his brother, Peter, took over as president of Lagoon. With a passion for antiques and Utah history, Peter immediately put some ideas he had planned with his late brother into action. This included the construction of a 15-acre Pioneer Village in 1976, the largest expansion in Lagoon’s history. With diplomacy and care, Lagoon transported Pioneer Village from South Salt Lake City to an area on the park’s northern perimeter, one brick, and one board at a time.
3. The Holding Family – 400,000 Acres (Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho)
The late Robert Earl Holding’s wife and children possessed over 400,000 acres of land after purchasing Sinclair Oil Corp. for $78 million in 1976. The family’s land properties in Utah don’t have definite records, but they are well-known to be among Utah’s largest landowners. The Holdings own ranches in Wyoming and Montana, ski resorts in Utah and Idaho, and six luxurious hotels and resorts across the country, including The Grand American Hotel in Salt Lake City. The family also owns the 190,000-acre Sunlight Ranch in Montana, outside Yellowstone National Park.
The success of Robert Earl Holding arose in the oil business. He had three refineries and purchased Sinclair Oil in 1976. At the time of his death, he was ranked as the 155th richest person in America on Forbes’ 400 list, with an estimated net worth of roughly $3.2 billion. Holding was partially paralyzed after having a serious stroke in 2002, but he recovered sufficiently to continue managing his organization until his death in the spring of 2013.
Why Does the Federal Government Control Vast Land in the West?
The history of government property ownership has been dominated by divestment and public usage rather than acquisition. The United States spread across the continent by buying or seizing property that became new states. Among those who lost territory were Native Americans.
The country gradually handed the land to state governments and individuals, mostly through homesteading and land grants, which enabled farmers to obtain portions of land for agricultural use. The government also tended to let ranchers and others unrestricted use of unclaimed areas, though there were squabbles over the years when settlers tried to fence in public property or occupy land in Indian territories.
That method worked effectively in the Midwest, where the federal government owned very little land. However, in the 11 Western states (including New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana), a mix of geography and politics hindered progress.
Many of the West’s mountainous, dry, and difficult-to-reach land areas were unappealing to farmers. Settlers claimed the few valleys suitable for farming through homesteading and established settlements. The only use for most of the remaining land was grazing, but cattle ranchers and sheep herders needed enormous expanses of land to feed their livestock. However, in 1976, Homestead Act ended because many settlers abused it. Hence, the federal government continued to take hold of the remaining land, which is why most of Utah’s land is federally owned.
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- World Population Review, Available here: https://worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/largest-landowners-by-state
- Stacker, Available here: https://stacker.com/utah/utah-2-state-most-land-owned-federal-government
- The New York Times, Available here: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/06/upshot/why-the-government-owns-so-much-land-in-the-west.html
- USA Today, Available here: https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2019/11/25/these-people-own-the-most-land-in-america/40649951/
- Insider, Available here: https://www.businessinsider.com/biggest-private-landowners-2013-10#19-the-holding-family-owns-400000-acres-7