Montana is known for its wide open spaces and rugged natural beauty. The state is home to two national parks, over 20 national forests and wildlife refuges, as well as vast swaths of privately owned ranch land.
But who exactly are the largest landowners in Big Sky Country?
Here’s a look at some of the key players when it comes to Montana’s real estate.
1. Federal Government
Far and away the biggest landowner in Montana is the federal government.
Various federal agencies, including the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, manage over 27 million acres of land in the state.
This includes renowned protected areas like Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.
The federal government also oversees military installations in Montana like Malmstrom Air Force Base and vast tracts of national forest.
2. Plum Creek Timber Company
The largest private landowner in Montana is Plum Creek Timber Company, which owns 765,925 acres across the state as of 2022. Plum Creek, which is now part of Weyerhaeuser, is one of the biggest private timberland owners in the nation.
In Montana, the company’s land holdings are spread across the western half of the state and are focused on timber production.
Plum Creek has faced controversy and protests over logging practices on its lands, including road building and clear cutting old growth forests.
3. Farris and Dan Wilks
Coming in third for Montana land ownership are Farris and Dan Wilks, two billionaire brothers from Texas.
The Wilks brothers made their fortune in the oil and gas industry through their company Frac Tech and have invested a sizeable chunk of it in Montana ranch land.
Together, the Wilkses own around 358,837 acres of Montana land making them one of the largest private landowners in the state.
Their holdings are concentrated in Fergus and Petroleum counties. Beyond ranching, the Wilks brothers have also made waves for their conservative political activism.
4. The Galt Family
The storied Galt family owns around 248,023 acres of ranch land across Montana, making them one of the longest standing large landowners in the state.
They run their cattle operations on land that has been in their family for over a century. John Galt Sr. first started acquiring ranch land in Montana in the early 1900s.
Today the legacy is continued by his descendants who maintain the ranching way of life.
5. Robert Earl Holding
The late billionaire businessman Robert Earl Holding was another one of the largest private landholders in Montana at the time of his death in 2013.
Holding amassed over 200,000 acres of ranch lands across the state. His other business interests included Sinclair Oil and the Sun Valley ski resort in Idaho.
Holding’s land in Montana remains family-owned and makes up a considerable portion of the state’s private lands.
6. The Coffee Family
Rounding out the list of Montana’s largest landowners is the Coffee family, descendants of the original founders of Stockman Bank in Montana.
Spread across four generations, the well-known banking family owns around 212,633 acres of real estate across the state. Their land holdings stem from long operated family ranches.
With deep roots in Montana’s agricultural scene, the Coffees remain influential players, even beyond banking, to this day.
7. Great Northern Properties
While not associated with one family name, Great Northern Properties owns over 150,000 acres of land across Montana. The company is an offshoot of the Great Northern Railroad, which was built across northern Montana in the late 19th century.
Great Northern Properties today continues to manage a sizable portion of the railroad’s former land granted along the rail lines.
Land Ownership Is Always Changing
While this covers some of the major owners of Montana’s sprawling landscape, it’s worth noting that land ownership is always evolving.
The rankings of the biggest landowners shift from year to year as parcels change hands or get passed down generations. And federal land management policies can also transform over time with the political winds.
But one thing remains constant – Montana’s wide open spaces will continue to shape the state’s culture and identity for generations to come.