Ted Turner: A Good Guy After All?
The author of a new biography of one of the West's largest landholders speaks with HCN about conservation, capitalism and Cousteau.
Author Todd Wilkinson recently spoke with High Country News publisher Paul Larmer about Wilkinson’s newest book, Last Stand: Ted Turner's Quest to Save a Troubled Planet. Wilkinson talks about what it was like to get to know the part-time Montana resident who founded CNN, once owned the Atlanta Braves and who reinvented himself as a sustainable agriculture entrepreneur and conservationist. Turner has been both lauded and criticized for his brash style and for his massive land holdings in the West.
Wilkinson is based in Bozeman, Montana and has been a journalist for 25 years. He is the author of several books, including Science Under Seige: the Politicians' War on Nature and Truth.
High Country News: How did you come to write your newest book?
Todd Wilkinson: In 1992, I was assigned to write a story about Ted's recent acquisition of the Flying D Ranch outside of Bozeman, Montana. It's a spectacular place on the northern edge of the Madison Range. Ted, in his full "mouth of the South" mode, had caused a ruckus in the local ranching community by selling off the cattle and replacing them with bison. He had a utopian view of bison: He told the ranchers that bison were better adapted to the Western environment and needed less care. I asked him, "What do you want to do with this place?" He pointed to several paintings on his wall of a sweeping Western landscapes, with herds of bison and antelope grazing below mountains: "I want my land to look and feel like that." He was really articulating a prescription for rewilding the Western landscape.
HCN: So this wasn't what you expected to hear from the swashbuckling Ted Turner who won The America's Cup, created the first 24-hour news station (CNN); owned the Atlanta Braves and wooed Jane Fonda to become his third wife?
TW: I began as a skeptic. I kept waiting to be disappointed. A lot of folks wondered if he was really going to stay in the West. I interviewed him five times over the next decade as he built his landholdings. Today he has 55,000 bison and 15 ranches totaling 2 million acres in six western states. He's also done a lot on the international scene, working to curb nuclear proliferation, supporting the UN with a $1 billion gift. He's sincere and puts his money where his mouth is.
HCN: Is this why you have a section in the book where you contrast Ted with another famous Western landowner – Tim Blixseth, who created the exclusive Yellowstone Club for the very wealthy on land not far from Turner's Flying D ranch?
TW: Yes. They both arrived at about the same time. But where Ted has tried to reduce the human footprint on his ranch, Blixseth has tried to expand it. [Blixseth] became a billionaire through his land dealings. Ted doesn't view his land that way. With his bison and chain of restaurants (Ted's Montana Grill, which has branches as far away as Florida and New York) selling the meat, he has pushed to make his lands profitable. But he has tried to restore them at the same time. And he has steered his business to local industries. He actually practices the Triple Bottom Line espoused by Amory Lovins, Paul Hawkins and others.
HCN: He sounds almost too good to be true.
TW: I did not try to portray Ted as a saint. He's deeply flawed. But I do think he's advanced this notion of eco-capitalism with a humanitarian bent. Last fall, he convened a group of large landowners in the West at the Flying D to talk about what they could do to knit their private lands into the tapestry of the public lands. Jon Malone, who recently overtook Turner as the largest landowner in the West, was there; he says Ted's approach to land conservation has shaped his own.
HCN: How is Turner flawed?
TW: When I started this project, we set some ground rules. He would give me access and he would trust what I uncovered. At first, Ted didn't think the book should discuss his personal side, but I saw it as critical. We got into some traumatic areas where none of the five other unauthorized biographies of Turner have gone – Ted's difficult relationship with his father, who committed suicide, his own thoughts of suicide and his relationship with Jane Fonda, whom he divorced in 2001. I think the whole process was a pretty cathartic experience for him.
HCN: You mention other people who had a deep influence on Ted, especially Jacques Cousteau.
TW: John Denver introduced Ted to Jacques and his son, Jean-Michel. They were doing environmental documentaries and invited Ted down to the Amazon on one of their trips. Ted invested in their documentaries and aired them on CNN. Jacques became a father figure for Ted and inspired a lot of his environmental work; but 15 years later, the tables turned when Cousteau was ailing and increasingly cynical. Ted called Cousteau the "god-father of the environmental movement," but he refused to accept his cynicism.
HCN: I noticed in one of the pictures in the book of a gathering of Turner's senior business and ranch managers that there is not a single woman among 30 men. What's that about?
TW: Ted is a guy's guy. But he understands the challenges facing women. He's now hired a woman, Kathy Calvin, to oversee his UN Foundation, and he's made a lot of gifts to organizations advocating for women.
HCN: One of the first things Turner did at the Flying D was remove miles and miles of barbed wire fence used to contain cattle. What else has he done?
TW: He's restored native fisheries, enhanced habitat for endangered Chiricahua Leopard frogs and funded a lot of science on predators, including wolves. The Flying D is home to one of the largest wolf packs in the West, and he's had scientists look into their interaction with elk. Ted's dream is to restore wolves to his ranches in the southern Rockies, but he knows that the topic is sensitive locally.
HCN: The Ted Turner you portray today seems like a different man than the one who first came to Montana.
TW: He's not a vigilante and he's not so full of himself that he won't acknowledge he's made a mistake. He has land and he knows that if you protect it and keep it wild, you have lots of opportunities. Turner is plowing ground in the radical middle. As he often says, "capitalism isn't the problem, it's how we practice it."