The report explained that large timberland management companies were formed in the 1980s, as "vertically integrated" timber companies -- which controlled land, harvested trees and produced pulp and paper - that were broken up in response to investment trends, tax law changes, and mechanization.
In the new report, second on the list of large West Virginia landowners was Norfolk Southern, the Norfolk, Va.-based railway company, with 240,000 acres.
As researchers were preparing the new report, the paper giant MeadWestvaco announced that it had reached an agreement to sell all of its U.S. timberland to another timber management company, Plum Creek Timber of Seattle.
In 2011, when data was gathered for the report, Plum Creek was West Virginia's eighth-largest landowner with 114,000 acres in five counties. MeadWestvaco was seventh on the ownership list with 115,000 acres in four counties. The property transfer, finalized just last week, vaults Plum Creek into third place among West Virginia's landowners, with 229,000 acres.
Others in the new top 10 landowner list were Natural Resource Partners, Pardee Resources, Coastal Lumber, Penn Virginia, Alpha Natural Resources and CONSOL Energy, which recently sold large West Virginia holdings to Murray Energy.
In some counties, just one company owns a significant share of the privately held land. For example, Heartwood owns about one-fourth of the private land in Wyoming, Wetzel and Clay counties. Norfolk Southern owns one-fifth of McDowell County, and Pardee Resources owns nearly one-fifth of Webster County.
Only three of the corporations identified by Miller -- Consolidation Coal, Norfolk and Western Railroad and Westvaco -- are still among the state's top 10 landowners, and they have been renamed as CONSOL Energy, Norfolk Southern and MeadWestvaco.
The new study found that corporate landownership ranked far lower than reported in 1974 in some counties, including Barbour, Harrison, Lincoln, Mineral and Putnam.
"It is very difficult to discern why private land concentrations has shrunk in these counties over the last 40 years," the new report said. "It could be an issue of double counting acreage -- for example, counting both mineral ownership and surface ownership -- which took place during the 1974 study."
In the Marcellus Shale natural gas counties of the northeast and north-central part of the state, the private land ownership is less concentrated and tends to be owned more by individuals than large, out-of-state corporations, the report said.
Still, the report looked only at surface landownership, not mineral ownership and not whether ownership of coal or gas reserves had been "severed" from the surface ownership.
Report authors said that more research on those topics is needed, that problems of access to complete property and mineral ownership data should be addressed, and that policymakers need to consider their findings when planning future economic development efforts.
"With only a few large companies owning a big portion of the southern coalfields, it could make it incredibly difficult to develop the area as coal continues to decline," said Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. "The implications of this research merit further investigations of taxation, mineral ownership, and how to incentivize development in the region."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.