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Ted Turner: largest landowner in the West

Ted Turner — media mogul, bison breeder, restaurateur, and philanthropist — is America's largest individual landowner, with 2 million acres across 12 states and Argentina.

Ted Turner came to be the biggest individual landholder in the West by way of the South.

Photography by Kurt Markus

 

Born in Ohio and raised in Georgia, Turner early on developed an affection for the movie Gone with the Wind, taking to heart in particular Gerald O'Hara's words to his daughter Scarlett: "Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin' for, worth fightin' for, worth dyin' for. Because it's the only thing that lasts."

Even now, at age 70, Turner periodically peppers his conversations with dialogue from his favorite movie. During his heyday at the helm of Turner Broadcasting Systems Inc., he once joked that he purchased the film studio MGM/UA Entertainment Co. in 1986 for $1.5 billion primarily so he could personally own Gone with the Wind.

In actuality, the epic was just one of hundreds of titles in the MGM/UA library Turner used to program Turner Network Television (TNT) and Turner Classic Movies, two cable networks in a media empire that also included CNN, Superstation TBS, and the Cartoon Network.

Turner's business acumen gave him the financial wherewithal to seriously heed Gerald O'Hara's admonition. To paraphrase the old cowboy tune: Turner has land, lots and lots of land, under starry skies above. According to Fortune magazine, he currently is America's largest individual landowner, with2 million acres across 12 states and Argentina.

And while he declares permanent residency in Lamont, Florida — some 300 miles away from Atlanta, where he famously built up his media empire from a single independent TV station — he spends, by his own estimation, 80 to 100 days a year in Montana. "And about 50 of those days on horseback," he says.

It's a beautiful fall morning in Madison County, Montana (the setting of the photos above), the kind of day Turner might normally devote to fishing or horseback riding, or both. "Ride half a day, then fish half a day," he tells a visitor. "That's my perfect day on my ranch."

Turner has ample opportunity for both on his Snowcrest property, a 13,343-acre spread located along the Ruby River, home to a herd of free-ranging bison, moose, bear, deer, and an impressive assortment of native birds. But on this particular morning, he's remaining inside his tastefully appointed home, a one-story edifice carefully designed to blend in with the natural beauty of the land.

Asked about the Albert Bierstadt landscapes that line the walls, he readily admits that he is proud of the paintings. But he sounds even prouder when he talks about the solar panels that he uses to generate electricity and to minimize the need for intrusive power lines.

"I don't feel like I'm the owner of this place," Turner says. "I feel like I'm the custodian of it. It was an honor and a privilege for me to be able to be involved with it."

Turner says it is his responsibility to take the best care of the land possible. "Look, the land's going to be around long after we're gone," he says. "That's why I'm also trying to preserve it in perpetuity."

In addition to Snowcrest, Turner's Montana holdings include the 4,878-acre Red Rock Ranch located along the Red Rock River in Beaverhead County, the 22,129-acre Bar None Ranch in Montana's foothill region on the southern end of the Belt Mountains, and, most impressively, his grand 113,613-acre Flying D Ranch in southwest Montana just north of Yellowstone National Park.

Turner makes no apologies for his massive amassing of land, although he's willing to joke about it: "I don't want to own every ranch," he once said. "I just want to own the ranch next door." Still, some people in Montana, and beyond, have grown increasingly concerned about his accumulation program — and, in some cases, more than mildly suspicious about his motives.

For his own part, Turner has never been one to pay much heed to second-guessers or skeptical critics or to be stingy with his own brand of blunt-spoken criticism. Remember, this is the guy who publicly questioned the decisions of other board members after Turner Broadcasting merged with Time Warner in 1996. And he's made no secret of his displeasure with the fallout from Time Warner's subsequent ill-starred merger with AOL. ("A total disaster," is one of his few printable descriptions of the latter.)

He resigned as vice-chairman of AOL Time Warner years ago but continues to aim the occasional barb at the way some of his former media holdings are operated. (CNN? The all-news network has become "light on news and heavy on visuals," he tells his Snowcrest visitor.)

It's not surprising then that Turner laughs derisively when asked about conspiracy theories that have sprung up in the wake of his Nebraska land acquisitions. Some surmise he's attempting to corner the land over the Ogallala Aquifer, the world's largest underground water system, to wield powerful influence in the seriously water-starved West; others claim he wants to convert his land into a humongous wildlife refuge, thereby removing it from Nebraska's tax rolls. "Yeah," Turner says, "I'm sure that anybody who's doing anything is unpopular somewhere."


Kurt Markus
"We operate our ranches responsibly from an environmental viewpoint," Turner says. But he also treats landowning as a serious business.

So just what is Turner doing with all that land? Trying, he says, to fulfill three missions: make money, protect the environment, and promote conservation. Which, in his view, are not mutually exclusive goals.

"I do not expect to sell the water rights that I inherited with the ranches I have purchased," Turner says. "I want to be able to use that water as it's historically been used. Particularly, I want to keep it in the river so the fish have someplace to swim. I have no plans to exploit the water resources."

Currently, Turner's various ranches help pay for themselves through farming, forestry, and oil and gas leases. (El Paso Energy Co. operates hundreds of natural-gas wells on Turner's 590,823-acre Vermejo Park Ranch in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.) Thinking long-term, Turner says his land holdings will be taken care of in perpetuity.

"They're going to go to a combination of trusts I set up," Turner says. "And then they'll eventually go to the Turner Foundation," the charity branch of his empire, "which hopefully will be able to maintain them. And at my death, the properties that don't have development easements will be put under conservation easements. It's in my will, so that they won't be developed. I wasn't going to leave them dangling when I passed on."

Turner already has negotiated a conservation easement with the Nature Conservancy,granting all development rights to the Flying D to the nonprofit organization. "I think it was the biggest easement there ever had been at the time," he says with a beaming smile. "I put the whole ranch under easement."

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Turner thoroughly enjoys being known as a philanthropist. But he's the first to admit that sometimes there's money to be made by giving. "You get a tax deduction based on what you give up," he says. "Now, if you give up the development rights to a ranch in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, you don't get much for that because there's not that much development potential there. On the other hand, if you're 20 miles from downtown Bozeman — well, then there's a huge amount of value that's involved."

Still, the question remains: Why did Turner start buying land on such a massive scale in the first place? The answer: Blame it on the bison. Seriously.

"I really like bison," Turner says with unabashed enthusiasm. "When I was a boy, I read the books about what happened to them and how close they came to extinction — actually, within a couple hundred animals of extinction. From about 30 million." Turner viewed the near extinction of the largest indigenous land animal in North America as a great tragedy.

Plus, he says, "I thought they looked cool. You know, they were on the nickel. And they stopped making the buffalo nickel in 1938, which is the year I was born. But there were still a lot of buffalo nickels in circulation while I was growing up. And they were my favorite coin. I just liked buffalo. In fact, I like wildlife, period. Still do."

Indeed, on the properties Turner controls, "We encourage all kinds of wildlife. We don't even kill rattlesnakes. On our properties, it's against the rules to kill rattlesnakes — unless they are threatening you in some way, in your yard, if you're one of the ranch managers."

On the other hand, Turner's not averse to having hunters try their luck — for a price — on his land. For example: Every year at the Flying D Ranch, 30 hunters pay approximately $12,000 each for the opportunity to spend a week stalking trophy elk on the property.

"Yeah," Turner says, "we do have a big hunting program. And on some of the ranches, a fishing program, too. During the seasons and so forth, we play completely by the rules. We do harvest some wildlife under the state and federal laws that allow that. We're not anti-hunting and -fishing, we're pro-hunting and -fishing, even though I love to see the animals."

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Turner first got into the buffalo business around 1989, when he bought the Flying D. "I already had a few bison over in South Carolina on my first little piece of property," he says. "I started with three. I thought [bison meat] tasted so good, and it was so much better for you than beef because of all the fat that cattle have because they're fed so much corn." So he decided to pursue a bison business.


Kurt Markus
Turner has helped save the bison from extinction by amassing a herd of 45,000 on his Western ranches. He also serves bison at his 57 Ted's Montana Grill restaurants.

Turner bought his first couple of Western ranches for the purpose of hunting and fishing and the rest of them to expand his bison herd. "When I got to 2 million acres, I figured that was a good round number to stop on. And I was able to have around 45,000 bison — we brought the herd up to that size. And that's where we're trying to maintain it."

(The buffalo don't roam on Turner's Argentinian ranches. "That's where we encourage guanacos, which are the wild camels of Patagonia, which are in a situation there similar to the bison here," Turner says.)

From time to time, there is a thinning of the herd as part of Turner's long-term campaign to sell American consumers on buffalo meat as a healthy and tasty food choice. In some ways, Turner admits, it's been an uphill struggle: Although he's promoting a product that is hormone- and antibiotic-free, Americans have proven slow to develop an appetite for the delicacy. But he's managing to win new converts, he says, with the slow, steady expansion of his bison-centric restaurant chain.

Turner opened his first Ted's Montana Grill — an eco-friendly eatery with such delicacies as bison meatloaf and barbecue bison short ribs on the menu — in Columbus, Ohio, in January 2002. (More traditional dishes also appear on the bill of fare.) That startup spawned several others, so that there now are 57 Montana Grill restaurants in 19 states.

He became a restaurateur, Turner says only half-jokingly, because he needed a way to fill the time after being "laid off" by Time Warner. "I was in my mid 60s," he says, "and I'd really enjoyed being a businessman all those years. And I wanted to keep my hand in business. But at 65, you can't get a job. Nobody wants you because you're too old. So I had to do something that I started up on my own."

Fortunately he had a good friend, George McKerrow, who had been in the restaurant business and wanted to get back in it. "See, he had sold his company. And then he was let go — like a lot of entrepreneurs are after they sell their companies," Turner says.

Turner laughs, but does not smile, as he considers what he's just said, then continues: "So we started it. And so far, it's been a lot of fun. Of course, right now, the restaurant business is in a real slump because of the general economy. When people are having a hard time making their house payments, the easiest thing to do is cut back on your restaurant expenditures. And that's happening all over. So we're kind of hunkered down for some hard times. But I'm still glad that I'm in it. And we'll survive."

Pressed on the subject, Turner will own up to missing the day-to-day responsibilities (and, yes, possibilities) that came with his media moguldom. He relished the opportunity to produce made-for-cable Westerns starring such luminaries as Tom Selleck and Sam Elliott when he ran TNT. And he has few regrets about making a stab at independent feature filmmaking with the 2003 Civil War drama Gods and Generals, a dream project that emerged as a box-office nightmare.


Population overcrowding and global warming are two of the concerns Turner hits upon in his recently published autobiography.
Buy this book

"I miss making movies," he says. "I loved the movie business. I loved the entertainment business. News, entertainment, and sports — I loved it all."

But just because those days are, well, gone with the wind, Turner isn't at a loss for things to keep him occupied. He's typically outspoken on the subject of global warming — "We have to completely transform our whole energy system and get out of fossil fuels!" — and he puts his money where his mouth is when it comes to be being ecologically conscious. (At his Montana Grills, paper straws, low-voltage lighting, and biodegradable takeout packaging are de rigueur.)

And despite losing billions — yes, that's billions — after the cratering of AOL Time Warner stock, he continues to donate generously to such causes as banning nuclear weapons, developing alternative fuel sources, and expanding U.N. health programs.

"We have to stabilize the population," he insists. "That's something else I'm working on. What are we going to do when there are 10 billion people? Already we're overcrowded, and we're having food shortages with 6 billion, six and a half. It's got to stop."

Turner hits upon these and other concerns in Call Me Ted, his recently published autobiography, co-written with Bill Burke. Is the book, long in the works, a summing up? Or is it merely a progress report?

"Well," Turner responds, "The last line of it is something I'd always thought would be a great line on your tombstone: ‘I have nothing more to say.' But that's not really true."

Because after all, as Ted Turner knows full well, tomorrow is another day.

 

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