I admire just a handful of people, those who do what philanthropist Edward Bok described as the essence of human purpose: “Make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.”
I have traveled to the American West, to southwest Montana in particular, for many years, and I have come to admire 73-year-old Ted Turner. Yes, that Ted Turner, the billionaire provocateur and “mouth of the South,” founder of CNN and TBS and former owner of the Atlanta Braves.
Turner exemplifies Bok’s philosophy, referring to himself as an “environmentalist, eco-capitalist and landowner.”
When I first visited this area several years ago, I do as I always do in country unfamiliar to me: I drove aimlessly, exploring unpaved roads and two-ruts, bracing for steep grades and switchbacks. On this particular afternoon, I happened upon a vast range, encircled by mountains, where about 200 bison grazed and kicked up clouds of dust near the road.
I was nowhere near Yellowstone National Park, where bison roam freely. So where did all these bison come from? I knew that Turner owned a ranch here. But I never imagined that I suddenly would be driving on a public road through his Flying D Ranch. The longer I drove, the more bison I saw, at least 300 more.
Turner’s swashbuckling style has not endeared him to many native Montana ranchers. Shortly after buying the 113,000-acre Flying D in 1989, Turner transgressed tradition by selling off the cattle, replacing them with buffalo and removing miles of barbed wire fence.
Today, he owns 2 million acres and has a herd of about 55,000 bison spread over 15 ranches across seven different states. In plain English, he owns 11 percent of the world’s population of 500,000 bison.
When he sold off the Flying D’s cattle, he told local ranchers that buffalo were more suitable to the Western environment. For sure, they required less care. In addition to his vision of raising bison to supply meat for his restaurant chain, Ted’s Montana Grill, he would show ranchers and others that conservation and preservation can go hand in hand with capitalism. He would demonstrate that the environment can be saved profitably. He would return wildness to vast grasslands and waters that had been fenced, dammed and channeled.
Todd Wilkinson, author of the new book, “Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet,” said in an interview that Turner has “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.”
I admire Turner for being a realistic environmentalist. Eco-radicalism, he believes, is a blueprint for disaster. After all, the environment’s health is at stake. Distinctly Montana magazine asked Turner about the best opportunity for saving the environment: Should the work be left to private wealthy individuals or to public policy and management? “It’s both sides, government and the private sector working together, that give us the best opportunity for environmental success,” he said. “We live in a country that has a good balance between rewarding those who work hard in the private sector and try to get ahead, and a government that tends to the things that the private sector can’t do or doesn’t do very well. Companies should be rewarded for doing well by their employees, their community and their environment. That’s part of the triple bottom line.
“But government has an important role. There needs to be regulation that deals with the bad players out there, especially polluters who try to pass their costs of doing business off onto others and onto our environment. They need to be held accountable; the best way of dealing with environmental messes is to ensure they never happen.”
I have no doubt that Turner is making the world a bit better and more beautiful because he lived in it.