“It drove home the point to me, for the first time in my life, that, as a business person, the decisions I make can either contribute to making problems for the Earth worse, or they can help advance a solution.”
BY JOSEPH T. O’CONNOR
To many, Ted Turner, the adopted Montanan dwelling in our own backyard, is a bit of a mystery, a man who has led two lives. The Cincinnati, Ohio, native cut his teeth on business ventures of near-epic proportions. He founded the CNN and TBS television networks, owned the World Series-winning Atlanta Braves, and for a time headed the World Championship Wrestling company. A fiercely competitive media mogul with a tongue capable of setting the room ablaze, Turner earned a reputation for being as tenacious as his 61-foot racing yacht of the same name that won the infamous Fastnet Race in 1979.
But in the late ‘70s another side of Turner began to emerge. A mentor to Turner, one Jacques Cousteau, helped impart in him a notion of altruism. Indeed, Turner saw Cousteau the explorer and conservationist as a leader of men. “The Captain should rightfully be considered the [environmental] movement’s father,” he once said. In 1977, Turner read a report commissioned by President Jimmy Carter outlining the dire straits the world was facing. Without comprehensive change, the report noted, these problems could spin out of control.
“It drove home the point to me, for the first time in my life, that, as a business person, the decisions I make can either contribute to making problems for the Earth worse, or they can help advance a solution,” Turner told writer Todd Wilkinson in the 2013 book Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet.
These days, the entrepreneur-turned-mogul-turned-philanthropist is worth $2.2 billion. He still wears his moustache reminiscent of Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind, and puts his time and a famously restless energy into searching for solutions to the biggest issues facing the world today. Turner has founded five foundations, including the Turner Endangered Species Fund, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
In 1997, he pledged $1 billion to the United Nations, which, in turn, launched the United Nations Foundation dedicated to tackling worldwide concerns, among them global poverty, climate change, women’s empowerment and energy access. The event, in fact, was a challenge to other wealthy individuals to give more, and it resonated with the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates, as well as Warren Buffett.
Turner, who turned 78 in November, is the second-largest private landowner in America, and has put much of it in conservation easements, ensuring its natural existence in perpetuity. He owns 15 ranches in the western U.S., of which four are in Montana. The 113,600-acre Flying D between Bozeman and Big Sky is managed for wildlife and bison. Turner is dedicated to the West, its land and its native animals, owning the world’s largest private bison herd. But he’s also loyal to bettering the world at large.
The one-time “Mouth of the South” (don’t call him that) has made an impact on sustainability and environmentalism considered among the most impressive in modern history. He’s been called a provocateur, a capitalist, a crusader. One thing you can call him: humanitarian.
Turner granted Mountain Outlaw an exclusive interview in November. Here are his words.
“What’s important is not only what you take away from the land, but also what you do to make sure these lands endure over time.”
MOUNTAIN OUTLAW: You bought your flagship Montana ranch, the Flying D, in 1989 and from there grew your landholdings in the U.S. and Argentina to more than 2 million acres, and expanded your bison herd to more than 51,000. Few people imagined this could be done. How do you feel about it looking back?
TED TURNER: I’m proud of what we have accomplished; it’s been a real team effort. In the beginning, I was on a steep learning curve because we set out to do something that had never been done before: bring back bison on a massive scale. In order to do that, we needed a lot of land. Fortunately, I had the economic resources to acquire properties that could accommodate an expanding herd. Now, here we are decades later and the bison is our national mammal.
M.O.: You were excited when a wolf pack began denning at the Flying D, and it now sounds like a sow grizzly and her cubs are living fairly close to your house. Are you equally as excited about having bears living not far from your backdoor?
T.T.: I hired Mike Phillips, who previously led the effort in the mid-‘90s to restore wolves to Yellowstone Park, to oversee the daily operations of the Turner Endangered Species Fund. He told me that if we provided habitat on the Flying D, the wolves of Yellowstone would eventually find their way to the ranch. When wolves established a pack, I was overjoyed. I think we may have been one of the first, if not the first, ranch in the West to lay out a welcome mat for wolves! I have literally howled to wolves off the back deck of my house with my family and friends.
I also hoped the Flying D could provide a home for grizzlies. In the past several months, we received reports that a sow with cubs had taken up residence in the ranch interior. I was pretty excited. Wolves and grizzlies have reputations that are far worse than the reality, but if you give them room to roam, we can live with them peacefully. I’m proud to say that my home in Montana is also their home.
M.O.: When you arrived in Montana, development was really starting to take off and the easement you placed on the Flying D was one of the largest of its kind. Had the ranch not been protected and instead sold as a real estate play, it would look very different today, and you left a lot of money on the table by embracing conservation. What motivated you?
T.T.: Respect for nature and the environment. In so many parts of the country, wildlife is getting crowded out by people and development. When I first laid eyes on the Flying D, it didn’t take me long to realize how special it is; and I knew that if it wasn’t protected, it would turn into a giant suburb of Bozeman, just as other parts of the Gallatin Valley have. I view land ownership this way: What’s important is not only what you take away from the land, but also what you do to make sure these lands endure over time.
M.O.: In Wilkinson’s book, you make the analogy that the world is currently in the seventh inning and the home team is down by a couple of runs; that now is the time to rally. What keeps you up at night?
T.T.: Potential nuclear dangers are my top concern. The U.S. and Russia still have large nuclear arsenals pointing at each other, and we must also consider what North Korea is capable of. Human or computer error could trigger an event that leads to an exchange of nuclear weapons, and it would be catastrophic. [Former U.S. Senator] Sam Nunn and I founded the Nuclear Threat Initiative 15 years ago to address these issues, and NTI is doing some outstanding work. After nukes, I would say climate change, addressing human poverty and population growth, and loss of biodiversity rank right up there. Many of these issues are so interrelated, and I should note they all have environmental components. Degraded environments cause people and countries to become desperate, and when you’re desperate, you don’t always behave rationally.
M.O.: In your forward to Wilkinson’s book, you write that one “…can be a tree hugger and still have [one’s] name appear in Forbes.” In your opinion, why do people tend to compartmentalize these concepts into two separate schools of thought?
T.T.: It’s a myth that in order to make money, you have to trash the environment or that if you protect the environment, it’s going to cost our nation in lost economic productivity. That mentality should have faded long ago, and truthfully, when it comes to the current state of our environment, we can’t afford to think that way anymore.
M.O.: What’s a good day for Ted Turner like in the Wild West?
T.T.: When I’m in Montana, I’m usually up before dawn to exercise. After breakfast, I might fish or take a drive around the ranch to see the wildlife. When I’m out in nature doing the things I love, it energizes me and allows me to think more clearly. I don’t own a cell phone, so I don’t have to remind myself to unplug when I’m on the ranch, but I encourage my family and friends to do so when they visit. Otherwise, they can’t fully unwind and appreciate what Montana has to offer.
M.O.: One of your more recent entrepreneurial endeavors is Ted Turner Expeditions (TTX), which launched in 2015, and allows visitors to explore and stay overnight on some of your properties. How did the idea for ecotourism evolve and what kind of a reception has it had?
T.T.: The response has already been phenomenal. The idea started at my largest property, Vermejo Park Ranch (585,000 acres) in northern New Mexico, which functioned as a guest ranch before I bought it in 1996. People had been going to Vermejo to hunt and fish for years, and at one time, the National Park Service even considered turning it into a national park, so the public interest was already in place on that property. At Vermejo, we just expanded upon our ecotour offerings and added an ultra-luxury accommodation option by opening my home, Casa Grande, to guests this past year. But for both the Ladder Ranch and Sierra Grande Lodge & Spa in southern New Mexico, we had to start from scratch when it came to renovating existing structures, creating a menu of tour offerings and building a team of dedicated associates who believe in the TTX vision.
I’ve made substantial investments in conservation on my landholdings, and TTX is a way for guests to witness the effects of this and enjoy the lands, while knowing the money they’ve spent is going back into our environmental protection projects. Over time, we’ll probably expand to some of my other properties, but for now we’re focused on making sure we do it right.
“I choose to be an optimist when it comes to human potential.”
M.O.: Your Ted’s Montana Grill in Bozeman is among four dozen such restaurants, based in part on the idea of serving bison on the menu. I’ve heard that the Bozeman Ted’s is one of the most popular. Why do you think that is?
T.T.: Well for one, the food is delicious! If you haven’t eaten there yet, you must stop by and have a bison cheeseburger on me. Ted’s is in downtown Bozeman, and for many folks, it has become a local favorite. No matter which city and state, all of our 46 restaurants pride themselves on supporting their local communities.
M.O.: Between your days spent sailing and as an angler and a conservationist, water has been a resounding theme in your life. Considering the droughts in California and the role climate change has on rising sea levels, talk about the importance of preserving earth’s most valuable resource.
T.T.: This is a good question. My kids and I think a lot about climate change and how their kids are going to deal with the consequences, especially if we continue to do so little to address it. I’m trying hard to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. On my properties, we’re doing what we can to keep our forests and grasslands healthy so they will absorb carbon. We’ve also expanded our investments in solar power so that we can generate enough clean energy to provide electricity for thousands of homes. I choose to be an optimist when it comes to human potential.
M.O.: You won the America’s Cup as a sailor, Emmys and Oscar nominations for TV programming and films you greenlit, and you won a World Series when you owned the Atlanta Braves. Of all the things you’ve done, what gives you the most satisfaction?
T.T.: First and foremost, my children and grandchildren give me the most satisfaction any person could ever hope for. They bring me so much joy, and I’m grateful that they’re all doing their part to make this world a better place for generations to come.
I’m also proud of the efforts my colleagues and I made to win those trophies because they are noteworthy accomplishments. But I’m proudest of what we’ve done to protect and preserve our lands and species on them, as well as my foundations’ efforts to improve the lives of people around the world.
M.O.: You talk about the impacts that great Americans including Henry David Thoreau, Orson Welles and Andrew Carnegie have had on your life. How have these influences affected your dedication to philanthropy?
T.T.: When TBS started to become really profitable, I attended a seminar on philanthropy in Washington, D.C., where I learned how forming a family foundation can bring parents and their children together. At that time, I was working long hours building my company, which unfortunately took me away from my children more than I would have liked. So, the Turner Foundation was and is a great vehicle to contribute to my community and other organizations, while also spending quality time with my family.
Each year, I set aside a certain amount of money to give away and meet with all five of my children to decide how to invest it in ways that will have the most positive impact. What’s even better is now my grandchildren are involved too! Family foundations don’t require a ton of money, and when you do this, you not only teach your children economic literacy, but most importantly, the rewards that come with giving money away to make a positive difference in the world.
M.O.: Any regrets?
T.T.: I have a few regrets—who doesn’t? But dwelling on them doesn’t get you anywhere. If you’ve made mistakes in the past, the way to address them is by vowing to do better the next time. I firmly believe that if every one of us did more good things than bad things every day, the world would be a much better place.
Joseph T. O’Connor is the Outlaw Partners’ Executive Director of Media, and Editor for Mountain Outlaw magazine, the Explore Yellowstone guide and the Explore Big Sky newspaper.