Economic yearbook 2011 – the top 10 – florida’s biggest private landowners – florida trend gas leak

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Plum Creek’s Jon Rashleigh (left), head of Florida forestry, and Todd Powell, head of Florida real estate, say the state’s largest landowner will continue to see its primary business as timber but has some significant development plans as well. [Photo: Jon M. Fletcher]

Arrayed in row after row of tall, skinny slash pines, vast tracts of timberland have dominated the triangle between Jacksonville, Lake City and Gainesville for more than a hundred years. The landowners, dating back to the Owens-Illinois and Georgia Pacific forest-product companies, kept the area rural by keeping it in trees.

Today, these tracts are owned by Seattle-based Plum Creek Timber. The publicly held real estate investment trust entered Florida in 2001, when it merged with Georgia-Pacific’s Timber Co. Plum Creek — with 590,000 acres stretching into 22 of the state’s 67 counties — crowns Florida Trend’s list of the top 10 private landowners in Florida.

Combined, the 10 companies own more than 5,000 square miles of Florida — roughly a tenth of the state’s total land area. The large privately owned swaths are vital to Florida’s future — from their environmental importance for protecting the state’s freshwater resources and wildlife habitats to their economic significance for preserving agriculture and developing new business sectors.

"Florida’s got a very unique asset in these large tracts because almost every single subject of interest to the state right now is crucial on these lands," says Alan Reynolds, CEO and chairman of southwest Florida engineering firm WilsonMiller.

Like Plum Creek, most of the companies on the top 10 list plan to remain primarily agricultural businesses — whether raising cattle in central Florida, growing sugar cane and citrus in the southern part of the state or planting trees in the north. In addition to use for lumber and pulp, pines grown by Plum Creek, St. Joe Co., Foley Timber, Rayonier Timber and others soon will become part of the biofuels boom, feeding biomass-burning plants slated for southern Georgia, Gainesville and elsewhere.

But Plum Creek and most of the others also are moving to develop strategic pieces of their Florida holdings. Plum Creek‘s plans, for example, include an inland port in Lake City, a community development north of Gainesville and a master plan for 70,000 acres in Alachua County east of Gainesville, where the company wants to engage citizens to develop an economic and conservation plan unique in Florida’s development history. Other big landowners’ plans range from mixed-use developments to logistics centers and sites for alternative-energy crops and firms.

One concern shared by all the landowners is the issue of "predictability" — beginning with confidence that they will be able to continue large-scale agricultural operations in an increasingly urban state. Erik Jacobsen, manager at the Mormon Church’s Deseret Ranch, which stretches from eastern Orange County 50 miles south to Brevard County, says the church is committed to continue cattle ranching and farming on most of its land. But development in the surrounding central Florida region creates constant pressure. Most threatening at the moment are bids by various cities and counties and the St. Johns River Water Management District to move water off the ranch for use in urban areas. "We’re committed to preserving all the things we love about central Florida and to preserving the agricultural heritage of the land, but in return we need some certainty," says Jacobsen. "Including the certainty that we’ll have the water we need to irrigate."