Ted Turner the caricature is the type of person Midwesterners love to hate: rich, abrasive and a know-it-all. Or at least that’s what many of us understood about him during his quest for the America’s Cup (he won the sailing race in 1977), the founding of CNN, and as the owner of just about everything a person might want, including nearly 2 million acres of ranchland flush with fish and wildlife.
But a new book about Turner by a native Minnesotan paints a much more generous picture of the media mogul turned conservationist, and suggests some of Turner’s ideas about land, water and wildlife stewardship could play vital roles in sustaining life as we know it — for everyone.
Titled “Last Stand. Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet” (Lyons Press, 372 pages, $26.95), the book consumed author Todd Wilkinson for the better part of seven years, partly because Turner notoriously had been wary of journalists and unwilling to reveal much about his personal life.
Turner’s marriage to actress Jane Fonda in 1991 and the endless media curiosity that followed perhaps caused him to withdraw even more.
Wilkinson, who grew up in Mora and graduated from St. Olaf, first interviewed Turner in 1992. By then, Turner had purchased the largest ranch in Montana, the Flying D, and was introducing controversial ideas about how it should be managed.
“When I first interviewed Ted, I asked him what his vision was for the ranch, and he said he wanted to restore wildness to the land,” said Wilkinson, who lives in Bozeman, Mont.
Turner began by selling the ranch’s cattle and replacing them with bison. He also tore down fences, essentially trying to re-invent the Flying D as it was pre-settlement. Though Turner hunts and is an avid fly fisherman, his intent wasn’t to manage the land for its recreational benefit. Instead, he thought cattle were too destructive to the ranch’s grasslands, and that reintroducing bison would be a first move in a long-range effort to return the land to elk, wolves, mule deer, white-tailed deer and grizzlies, in addition to bison, which he intended to raise for profit.
Today, Turner also owns ranches in New Mexico, Kansas, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Nebraska. His intent with each is the same: produce enough income to sustain the lands as he wants them.
“Ted has been called a ‘Lefty’ by some people who don’t know him, for his environmental interests,” Wilkinson said. “But he’s actually part fiscal conservative and part eco-progressive.”
As a businessman, Turner knows that if conservation can’t sustain itself economically, it won’t last, Wilkinson said.
“He views the ‘economy vs. ecology’ idea as a false dichotomy,” Wilkinson said. “He also argues that people who measure land’s highest value in terms of its development potential have it wrong. Land’s highest value is achieved when it’s managed for its ecological value.”
Here’s Turner in the foreword to Wilkinson’s book:
“Those who claim that one can’t hug a sheltering tree and simultaneously aspire to have economic prosperity and strive to give all people a decent quality of life are being disingenuous. On my lands, I have set out to prove that the polemic of environment vs. economy is a false dichotomy, that you can be a tree hugger and still have your name appear in Forbes.
“I’ve always looked at the future as a realm full of boundless possibility. But I’m worried. Never before has humanity confronted so many epic issues — nuclear proliferation, swelling human population, a vast gulf between haves and have-nots, the biodiversity crisis, social tensions, environmental degradation and climate change — converging at once. The chances that we might fail in our endeavor to save ourselves are high. The scientific evidence is clear and putting our heads in the sand doesn’t change reality.”
Wilkinson’s book helps dispel false notions about an energetic visionary and suggests, as Wilkinson puts it, that “Turner’s conservation example opens a kind of dialogue that we’re not having in this country.”
Perhaps nowhere is this truer than in Minnesota, where farmers and developers so often are at odds with conservationists, with no one winning and the state’s land and water losing.
“We live in urgent times,” Wilkinson said. “Everyone can do their part, you don’t have to be rich. But it helps to have big players like Turner come on board who can think on a systemic level.”