CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In six West Virginia counties, the top 10 landowners control at least 50 percent of the private land. Not one of the state's 10 largest landowners is headquartered in West Virginia.
These findings in a new report from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and the American Friends Service Committee are instructive on the state's current social and economic struggles, and for the future.
The new report "Who Owns West Virginia in the 21st Century?" documents changes since Tom Miller of the Huntington Herald-Dispatch did a similar study in 1974. Miller found that a couple dozen absentee landlords -- mostly energy and land companies -- owned or controlled two-thirds of the private land in the state then.
This report identifies 25 owners controlling 17.6 percent of the state's private land. Authors of the report say land ownership in West Virginia has grown less concentrated, but the difference probably is also explained by different methods used in the two studies.
The state's top 10 landowners have also changed. Some energy companies have given way to lumber and money management concerns.
"Today the ownership is no longer dominated solely by corporations involved in mineral extraction," the report says. "It also belongs to money managers specializing in pension funds, endowments, foundations and universities -- groups that build wealth for people and institutions around the globe."
Conditions also vary by county. For example, Harrison, Barbour, Mineral, Lincoln and Putnam were among the counties with absentee corporate ownership over 50 percent in 1974, but not today. And five of the counties with the highest concentration of land ownership today are in the southern coalfields: Wyoming, McDowell, Logan, Mingo and Boone.
"This shift in ownership raises anew the possibility of revisiting issues and policies that would allow people who call West Virginia home an opportunity to share in the wealth offered by the state's resources," the authors write.
Among their welcome recommendations:
- Fair corporate tax rates that generate sufficient revenue for education and infrastructure. Wealth has always tended to flow out of this state to enrich others. Appropriate tax revenue would give West Virginians capital to nurture entrepreneurship, tourism and small business development.
- More transparent public records so West Virginians may evaluate the quality of land and mineral ownership. How else can the state judge if property is being taxed fairly?
- Another appeal for a Future Fund, a permanent mineral trust fund that would grow over time and support West Virginia's needs. If such a fund had been created when the coalfields were developed, the report says, West Virginia would be among the nation's wealthiest states today.
This new report documents an age-old problem in West Virginia, but also some significant change. Gov. Tomblin and members of the Legislature should learn from past mistakes and missed opportunities. The next 50 years really could be different.