Bison baron Ted Turner may own more private land in Nebraska than anyone else, but a cattle-ranching church is hot on his heels.

Last month, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bought nearly 87,700 acres of the 126,200-acre Eldred Ranch in Garden and Morrill counties. The church, commonly known as Mormon, paid nearly $16 million, said Garden County Assessor Janet Shaul.

Although the Eldred family retains ownership of the remaining 38,500 acres, it is expected those acres will be sold to the church as well.

When the sale is finalized, the church will own nearly 270,000 acres of ranchland in five Sandhills counties. Turner, who raises bison on his Nebraska ranches, owns about 320,000 acres in the state.

But don't expect buffalo to roam the Mormons' land, said Robert Lamoreaux, vice president of livestock at Farm Management Co., the department of the church in Salt Lake City that oversees its extensive farm and ranch holdings.

"We run cattle ranches. We are the largest cow-calf operator in the nation."

Lamoreaux declined to discuss specifics about the church's latest Nebraska acquisition to honor the Eldred family's desire to announce details at a future time.

One of the state's largest cattle ranches was owned by Victor and Martha Eldred, who used innovative, environmentally sensitive management techniques on their land. Victor Eldred died two years ago, and Martha Eldred lives in Texas near her two daughters.

The 87,700 acres sold to the church was held by the Eldred family foundation, a charitable trust that benefits western Nebraska community projects. Attempts to reach a foundation representative were unsuccessful.

The Eldred Ranch surrounds the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge and is near one of Turner's largest bison ranches in Nebraska.

While Lamoreaux avoided discussing the Eldred purchase, he said the church's other ranches in Nebraska raise cattle while taking care of the land.

"That's one of our objectives, to enhance the resource over time. If it doesn't get better, we're not doing our job," he said.

The church bought its first Nebraska ranch — 20,500 acres south of Whitman — in Grant County in 1990. It has since bought additional properties in Garden, Hooker and Sheridan counties.

While the church brings in managers to oversee their ranches, it hires other employees locally. Often, employees who worked for the previous owner stay on, Lamoreaux said. The church is an equal opportunity employer, and its employees aren't required to belong to or join the church.

Toni Ring, county clerk and assessor in Grant County, said the Mormons are considered good neighbors by other ranchers. She has heard nary a complaint about  how their ranches are managed in their 14 years there.

"You never hear anything about them," she said. "They never complain about their taxes."

The church, operating under the name Farmland Reserve Inc., manages its ranches to produce a return on its investment. Those returns help support global spiritual missions.

Although its management structure may resemble a private corporation, the church's nonprofit status  earns it an exemption from the state ban on corporate farming/ranching.

Still, the consolidation of such large tracts of land by a single entity should cause concern, said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union. The law seeks to protect the state's interest in having a diversity of resident landowners who live on and work their properties.

"It's hard for local folks to outbid an outside investor who has unlimited money," Hansen said.

In fact, the church always pays cash, Lamoreaux said, eschewing loans and debt.

In addition to keeping the land on a county's tax rolls, the Mormons try to be good neighbors, good stewards and solid contributors to local communities, he said.

"Hopefully, over time, that makes people feel good about us."

Reach Joe Duggan at 473-7239 or jduggan@journalstar.com.

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