In Southwest Montana, beneath the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains, is a 113,000-acre plot of rugged grassland called the Flying D Ranch. Its rolling meadows are grazed by bison, its thick woodland shelters a pack of wolves, and its crystalline streams teem with trout.
It’s a landscape that probably looks much as it did two centuries ago, a vision that wouldn’t be out of place in an oil painting of the old American West. But it wasn’t always this way. Not so long ago the ranch was lined with wire fences and filled with cattle. That was before it was bought by Ted Turner.
If you don’t know much about the man, it’s hard to imagine a less likely environmentalist.
For much of his life, Turner was known to the world as a brash billionaire nicknamed the “Mouth of the South.”
He was the media mogul who revolutionized cable TV and founded CNN, the world’s first 24-hour news network. He was a hard drinker and a womanizer with three marriages under his belt. He was an action man – a hunter, an America’s Cup-winning sailor and the owner of a baseball, basketball and ice hockey team.
Yet Turner says that all the while, he had a master plan: to make the world a better place.
A philanthropist of extraordinary generosity, he once donated $1 billion to the United Nations when the United States was in arrears of its payments. He founded the Nuclear Threat Initiative to reduce the risk from weapons of mass destruction, set up the UN Foundation to support humanitarian work around the world, and has signed The Giving Pledge, committing more than half his wealth to good deeds.
But the cause closest to his heart is protecting the earth, and the creatures we share it with.
“It’s a pretty wonderful world that we live in down here, and it’s worth saving,” he tells CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, reflecting on his decades of conservation work.
Aged 80, his motto is “save everything” – an adage he literally has as a bumper sticker. It may sound idealistic but the reasoning behind it is pragmatic: “You have to save the species that live on the planet to save the planet,” he explains.
But while Turner’s lofty goal is to conserve all species, there is one in particular whose survival is of special importance to him: the American bison.
“When I was a little boy, about 10 years old, I read National Geographic magazine and it had an article about bison, and it said how close they came to extinction,” Turner recalls.
“I decided then that I would do what I could to help bring the bison back and preserve them.”
Scientists believe that more than 30 million bison once roamed the great plains of North America. Migrating in vast herds, for millennia the largest creatures on the continent shaped the rugged landscape around them and provided sustenance for the Native Americans who hunted them.
But in the course of just a few decades, European settlers slaughtered almost all of them. At the start of the 20th century, only 1,000 bison remained.
Turner realized early on that preserving the bison meant finding a safe haven for them: he would need land – and plenty of it.
“I had to make a lot of money first because ranches are not cheap,” he says.
Starting in the mid-1980s, when he was an established media man, Turner began buying great swathes of ranch land in Montana, to restore it to the wild grassland it once was.
He encouraged the return of native plants and re-introduced indigenous animals – chief among them his beloved bison.
Actor and activist Jane Fonda was Turner’s third wife from 1991 to 2001, and spent much of her time with him on his ever-expanding ranches. “He wanted the land so that he could take down the fences, remove all of the signs of mankind, and to the extent possible return them to how they were before white Europeans came long and started developing them,” she says.
“I would sometimes sit on the porch of his flagship ranch, the Flying D in Montana, looking over this amazing valley and the Spanish Peaks and envisioned what would’ve happened to this land if he hadn’t bought it. There would’ve been 800 ranchettes and roads, and where would the critters have gone? Where could the herds of bison have gone?”
A balanced ecosystem
Turner now owns 16 ranches in six western states (and three more in Argentina). They cover a total of almost 2 million acres – 10 times the size of New York City – making him the second-biggest landowner in North America.
Each ranch is a refuge for native species, from the iconic – like his beloved bison and gray wolves – to the underappreciated – like the black-footed ferret, the westslope cutthroat trout, and the bane of many a rancher, the prairie dog. For Turner, they are all welcome.
“Prairie dogs are considered pests by a lot of people because they eat grass and they eat a lot of it,” he says. “But I feel like the prairie dogs are entitled to some. I’m willing to share my grass with the prairie dogs and the bison.”
Fonda explains that Turner has a keen understanding of the way species interact with each other to sustain their habitat.
“Ted taught me so much,” she says. “One of the important things that he taught me was the existence of what’s known as keystone species – certain species, that if they disappear the ecosystem collapses. He taught me that prairie dogs are a keystone species and they were disappearing.
“It was synergies between prairie dogs and bison, the two of them working together, that allowed the Great Plains to be the breadbasket of North America. Take away that foundational species and everything begins to collapse.”
These days, more than 50,000 bison roam the Turner ranches. It’s thought to be the biggest private herd in the world, and at least a tenth of all the bison in the US.
Turner drew criticism in 2010 when he offered to temporarily care for quarantined bison from Yellowstone National Park, in return for being allowed to keep most of their offspring. Opponents filed a lawsuit arguing that Yellowstone Bison should not be kept on private land, but a judged dismissed the challenge.
The species has made a remarkable recovery, thanks in part to Turner. On his land, they’re accompanied by elk, mule deer, antelopes, wolves, bears, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, eagles and osprey.
Solace in nature
The idea of Turner as a hands-on conservationist, riding on horseback across the restored wilds of Montana might jar with his public image as an outspoken, and sometimes controversial, mogul, but he has a long held love of nature.
He grew up on the plantations owned by his father, who ran a successful billboard company. In his youth, Turner loved to fish and to sail, but he had a difficult upbringing. His father beat him, and his sister died when she was a teenager. Turner found solace in nature, says Fonda.
According to those who know him, his relentless ambition is in part a quest for the approval of his father, who killed himself when Turner was 24.
“As Jane Fonda has said, what drives Ted Turner forward every single day, and trying to do good by the world and do good by his own family, is the fact that he knows at some basic level that he can save himself,” says Todd Wilkinson, an environmental journalist and author of the book “Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet.”
“And by trying to do good by the world, that makes the pain that he feels a little less,” adds Wilkinson.
As Turner grew older, that childhood passion for nature was informed by a growing awareness of the perils facing our planet. His journey into conservationism came partly from a developing friendship with the great French underwater filmmaker Jacques Cousteau.
“The one person who looms largest in Ted Turner’s life as a hero was the late Jacques Cousteau,” says Wilkinson. “They shared a love for the ocean, they had difficult relationships with their own fathers, and Ted had seen Cousteau’s documentaries.”
Wilkinson recounts how, in the early 1980s, Turner and his sons stayed on Cousteau’s boat in the Amazon. One night, Cousteau told Turner about the litany of environmental problems that he had seen in his travels: the first signs of dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, ocean pollution, overfishing, and early evidence of coral reefs dying.
“Ted said, ‘Well, this is overwhelming. I don’t know what we can do,’” says Wilkinson. “And Cousteau said, ‘Ted, what can men of good conscience do? If they know the world’s going to end, they must do everything they can to prevent that from happening.’”
According to Wilkinson, when Turner returned from the Amazon he initiated CNN’s first environmental reporting division, pushed for the channel to air more environmental documentaries, and became increasingly committed to philanthropy.