The face behind the space: Local resident John Malone donated $50 million of the $70 million deal for Greenland Ranch

One man was mysteriously absent from the roll call at a sunbathed celebration in April 2000 when the 21,000-acre Greenland Ranch was forever preserved as open space between Larkspur and Colorado Springs.

By By: Christine McManus
Posted 12/4/02

One man was mysteriously absent from the roll call at a sunbathed celebration in April 2000 when the 21,000-acre Greenland Ranch was forever …

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The face behind the space: Local resident John Malone donated $50 million of the $70 million deal for Greenland Ranch

One man was mysteriously absent from the roll call at a sunbathed celebration in April 2000 when the 21,000-acre Greenland Ranch was forever preserved as open space between Larkspur and Colorado Springs.

Posted

One man was mysteriously absent from the roll call at a sunbathed celebration in April 2000 when the 21,000-acre Greenland Ranch was forever preserved as open space between Larkspur and Colorado Springs.

Gov. Bill Owens, land-conservation leaders, ranchers, local officials and the media were there. They gathered on undeveloped ranch land east of Larkspur and breathed the fresh summer morning air. The officials congratulated each other for working together to preserve the 12-mile, high-plains landscape along Interstate 25, thereby guaranteeing development would not glom together the entire 130-mile, fast-growing metropolitan corridor between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs.

The fact that the complex, land-conservation deal was finally done outweighed the details that day. In particular, an anonymous donor had contributed $50 million of the $70 million deal. Who was this secret benefactor behind the scenes, and where in the world did he come from?

Residents of Douglas County, meet John Malone, a neighbor since the early 1970s, before many of the 210,000 people living here arrived during the past decade. Like some of the newer residents, he, too, was an unlikely transplant from the East Coast. He and his wife, Leslie, whose children are now grown and living back East, have since moved several miles farther east to neighboring Elbert County.

The story of how the Malones got here, and how the "cable cowboy" developed a love of the land, gallops right through local and national history into millions of living rooms and offices around the world.

Just after the News-Press arranged an interview last month with the cable magnate, once known as "Darth Vader" and still often compared to Andrew Carnegie or J.P. Morgan, a book about him hit the stands mid-November. The Wall Street Journal reporter/editor Mark Robichaux spent more than five years researching "Cable Cowboy: John Malone and the Rise of the Modern Cable Business." Although the book is not authorized by Malone, the cable baron said he read a draft last year.

"[The book] is Mr. Robichaux's view. He's done a scholarly job. I know he's interviewed a lot of people over the past five years," Malone said.

The book initially sold out at Denver metro book stores after excerpts were printed in the Rocky Mountain News.

"A lot of it is about why Denver was the center for cable, who were the personalities that made it what it was," Malone said.

"Cable Cowboy" tells "a terrific saga of American enterprise - how lonely wires on windswept hillsides were stretched and spun into the Information Superhighway - as seen through the remarkable career of cable television's greatest entrepreneur [John Malone]," said David Von Drehle, book reviewer and author. The story traces the wild and improbable rise of cable, from its start in the rural and outlying metro areas to the presently developing panoply of high-speed Internet and digital television.

Beginning in the 1950s, small businesses formed in rural areas across the nation to sell to country folk access to the television programming that the cities received. One of those small providers was Tele-Communications, Inc. of south metro Denver.

TCI, led by the late rancher and cable operator Bob Magness, began buying up many of the small providers. Magness recruited "the smartest sonofabitch [he could] find," says Robichaux. That man turned out to be the son of an East Coast engineer from the ranks of the Ivy League. Malone moved here to work at TCI in 1971. He was 31 years old.

Malone quickly adapted to the unhurried Colorado pace of life. Magness often invited Malone and others to the ranch. It was during these times with the part-time rancher Magness that Malone developed a love of the land.

But the perception of TCI from the outside was far more cynical than the clever, cowboy posse saw it. Bankers back East used to call them the cable cowboys, Robichaux said. As in, the type who would shoot form the hip and take justice into their own hands to get a deal done.

Beating out telephone technology, cable lines soon would build one of the largest technology markets in the world. Although anti-trust stalwart Al Gore and the Federal Trade Commission might agree with the robber-baron image of the cable industry and its billion-dollar deals, there's a little more to the story, particularly at the Douglas County level.

And the story is far from over, as satellite technology competes with cable.

For now, Denver is no longer the cable capitol of the world because of numerous corporate buyouts, mergers, relocations and downsizes. But Malone's Liberty Media Corp. owns shares in many media companies, and Robichaux said DirectTV and the French Vivindi should be watched, as well as Comcast.

In the spirit of his Libertarian leanings, Malone said corporate media should be somewhat regulated but by only one agency, not at the local, state and national levels.

A visit to the new gray slate, two-story ornate Liberty Media building on the north side of E-470 in northern Douglas County is proof that Malone believes in planning 1,000 years into the future. From his open-door office overlooking the Rocky Mountain Range and a large metal eagle sculpture in front of the building given to him by his wife, he said Colorado and Elbert County in particular need to plan well for the inevitable growth of what used to be the quiet high plains.

That growth won't touch every area, though. Thanks to Malone, Douglas County taxpayers and The Conservation Fund, generations of hikers seeking refuge from the city (as Malone did years ago) will be able to venture through parts of the 21,000-acre Greenland Ranch, several miles south of Castle Rock. The Douglas County Open Space and Natural Resources Division recently opened the Columbine Trail on the property east of I-25, south of the Bell Mountain Ranch subdivision.

The cost of stripping most development rights from the entire 21,000 acres was $70 million. Malone bought 17,000 acres (and most of the water rights), where only six houses can be built instead of 1,000. A 1994, voter-initiated county open-space sales tax and bond money funded a $10.2 million contribution from the county. Douglas County kept 3,700 acres. Colorado Lottery funds from Great Outdoors Colorado contributed $8.8 million.

Unlike media mogul Ted Turner, Malone typically keeps quiet about his charity. He is on the board of The Nature Conservancy, one of the largest land-conservation nonprofit organizations.

In addition to the 100,000 acres Malone owns in the Douglas/Elbert/El Paso county area, he owns an additional 170,000 in Colorado, making him one of the largest landholders in the state.

Leslie Malone operates a 30-horse hobby farm in Elbert County. The couple restores any historic structures worth salvaging on the properties they buy. John Malone employs 65 wranglers who run 3,000 head of cattle in the area. He insists that water rights should not be severed from the land. He is passionate about conservation of the land and puts his money where his mouth is on about 230,000 acres in northern New Mexico and similar acreage in Maine.

Just as he has a distaste for unplanned, sprawling development, Malone also said he dislikes government regulation and he has Libertarian leanings. These political beliefs were strengthened no doubt through the 1990s, when he faced the Federal Trade Commission regarding the dizzying mergers and acquisitions he maneuvered.

Malone reportedly said he would rather cut off his leg than go to Washington, D.C. But he was quick to praise Owens and the Colorado Legislature for developing the recent tax credits that inspire conservationists to preserve their land forever in conservation easements. The easements are one way to encourage landowners to cooperate for long-term planning as Colorado continues to grow, Malone said.

"There are two kinds of ranchers," Malone said. "Long-term, conservation-oriented stewards of the land who want to lock the land in as agricultural forever, or those who say conservation easements reduce the value."

Colorado is one of the only states that gives income tax credits as an incentive for land owners to declare their undeveloped land as open space forever. Legislators and Owens passed the income tax credit program for land conservationists in 2000.

The state gave nearly $2.33 million in tax credits to conservation easement donors who strip development rights from the title of their properties, said the state's 2001 annual report. About 100 landowners took advantage of the program in its first year.

The tax credit is a one-time, income tax credit. Up to $100,000 of the land value that is put into a conservation easement is credited on the donor's state income tax bills.

But ranchers and farmers do not typically make the $2 million per year to be able to use the $100,000 credit. Even with the tax credit spread out over the years, someone who makes $100,000 per year, for example, would need 20 years to use the maximum conservation easement credit.

Therefore, state legislators made open-space conservation even more alluring. They made the tax credits transferable; now a land-rich, cash-poor rancher could sell tax credits to wealthy Coloradans after stripping development rights from his property.

To pair conservationist ranchers with those who want to buy tax credits, a Boulder nonprofit was established, called The Conservation Resource Center.

In 2003, the $100,000 maximum tax credit will increase. As much as $260,000 in income tax will be credited under the conservation easement donation. For the first $100,000 in land value donated, the tax credit is dollar-for-dollar. The new part of the credit is a 40 percent tax credit on up to $400,000 land value for a maximum tax credit on a conservation easement reaching $260,000.

Conservation-easement donors can also get a federal income tax deduction as they would on donations to other nonprofit organizations.

The tax credits, which are designed for open space deals much smaller than Greenland Ranch, are good incentives for landowners in Colorado who are conservationist-minded, Malone said.

When the Malones purchase additional ranches, the families they buy from often move to Wyoming because they can get five or six times the amount of land and live a quieter existence.

"It's amazing to think about the new frontier of Colorado getting crowded," Malone said. "These parks and open space are going to be very important as the population density grows.

"I hate to see the taking of nonreplenishable, deep water aquifers. We need to think that through more carefully instead of depleting an asset where, once it's gone, it's gone, and you have a larger population running out of water," Malone said. "That's the last thing I'd like to see happen. I'm in favor of society thinking about sustainable development. We should plan for 1,000 years, not five years … or we will run out of new land and resources to exploit."

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