Ted Turner’s Vague, Quixotic Quest to Save the West

The shining mountains and rolling green hills at Turner’s Flying D Ranch, located just south of Bozeman, Montana. Photo courtesy Turner Enterprises.

The shining mountains and rolling green hills at Turner’s Flying D Ranch, located just south of Bozeman, Montana. Photo courtesy Turner Enterprises.

Turner’s brand of privatization-for-preservation contradicts Montana’s hard-won land ethic

By Brent Zundel
For the Bozeman Magpie
February 25, 2014

Turner stalks the banks as he fishes a stream flowing through his property. Photo courtesy Kurt Markus, Outside Magazine.

Ted Turner fishes a stream flowing through his property. Photo courtesy Kurt Markus, Outside Magazine.

Everyone from United Nations admirers to global environmentalists lauds Ted Turner as a hero. “Last Stand,” Bozeman-based author Todd Wilkinson’s in-depth biography, subtitled “Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet,” purports to delve into this “fascinating and flawed” man, but the result is more adoring prose than objective journalism.

Apart from recycling tired and easily brushed-aside criticisms of Turner’s brash “Mouth of the South” style and Montanans’ initial annoyances with him, Wilkinson’s biography does not delve deeply into Turner’s interactions with and impact on the people living in this state.

If Turner is saving the world, why then doesn’t he enjoy that unabashedly positive reputation in Montana?

One Nation Under Ted

Turner’s environmental efforts have drawn plenty of criticism and press coverage — some warranted, some overblown, but none unaware of the man’s reputation.

"Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet" by Todd Wilkinson.

“Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet” by Todd Wilkinson.

Possessing more money than all but a select few private citizens and unhampered by the bureaucracy of government, he has conducted a frenzy of ecological experiments. Few other landowners in the state could wield the sweeping power—and, yes, special treatment—that Turner does in making deals with private and government agencies.

From 2003 to 2010, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) teamed up with Turner in a controversial effort to poison Cherry Lake and Cherry Creek, which tumbles out of the Spanish Peaks and eventually dumps into the Madison River. The project involved treating 77 miles of the creek and tributaries, most of which ran through his land, with piscicides to remove all nonnative trout and then restocking the waters with westslope cutthroat trout, native to the other side of the Continental Divide.

Cherry Creek, a tributary of the Madison River that flows mostly through Turner’s private land, was poisoned between 2003 – 2010 and restocked with Westslope cutthroat trout. Photo courtesy Erik Petersen, Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

Cherry Creek, a tributary of the Madison River that flows mostly through Turner’s private land, was poisoned between 2003 – 2010 and restocked with Westslope cutthroat trout. Photo courtesy Erik Petersen, Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

Cherry Creek was poisoned in segments. At the end of each segment, the piscicides were detoxified with potassium permanganate, which turns the water purple. Photo courtesy Carter Kruse, Big Sky Journal.

Cherry Creek was poisoned in segments. At the end of each segment, the piscicides were detoxified with potassium permanganate, which turns the water purple. Photo courtesy Carter Kruse, Big Sky Journal.

Ultimately, the project was a success, and Turner picked up about 80 percent of the $1.4 million tab. FWP and the U.S. Forest Service paid for the rest, which, according to Montana Trout Unlimited Director Bruce Farling, left public-access advocates complaining about the use of hundreds of thousands of dollars of public funds to restore waters that flowed through mostly private lands.

A map of Cherry Creek’s route through public and private lands. Blue reaches run through public lands, while red reaches run through private. Image courtesy Brent Zundel, data from Montana Cadastral.

A map of Cherry Creek’s route through public and private lands. Blue reaches run through public lands, while red reaches run through private. Image courtesy Brent Zundel, data from Montana Cadastral.

Turner purchased the Bar None, his first Montana ranch, in 1987. He dove into the bison business two years later with his purchase of the Flying D Ranch, nestled in the foothills of the Spanish Peaks just south of Bozeman, and immediately began ruffling ranchers’ feathers by loudly trashing cattle in favor of bison.

Ted Turner surveys his private bison herd on the Flying D Ranch, just outside of Bozeman, Mont. Photo courtesy Elena Cizmarik, High Country News.

Ted Turner surveys his private bison herd on the Flying D Ranch, just outside of Bozeman, Mont. Photo courtesy Elena Cizmarik, High Country News.

Jim Peterson, former Montana Senate president and former executive vice president of the powerful Montana Stockgrowers Association, said Turner was “awfully critical” and “offended” ranchers and cattlemen. He has since softened his rhetoric, Peterson noted.

In his zeal to promote a vision of the West before it was settled, Turner promptly tore down all the interior fences on the Flying D, claiming bison didn’t need them (the designed-for-cattle fences had also been repeatedly trashed by the bison). Reality, in the form of grazing patterns, forced him to restring many of those fences a few years later. For a rancher on a real budget, that arrogance would likely have proven fatal, turning even a seasoned homesteader into a miserable honyocker.

Under a recent “unusual custodial contract” with the State of Montana, Turner has taken dozens of Yellowstone bison onto his ranch in an experimental program. This unprecedented agreement, which has drawn a failed lawsuit and charges of wildlife privatization, allows him to keep 75 percent of the offspring in exchange for shepherding the bison on his land—a boon that will greatly improve the genetic diversity of his own herd.

In the spring, state workers and livestock agents haze bison that wander out of Yellowstone National Park back into the park’s boundaries. Photo courtesy Nicole Bengiveno, New York Times.

In the spring, state workers and livestock agents haze bison that wander out of Yellowstone National Park back into the park’s boundaries. Photo courtesy Nicole Bengiveno, New York Times.

In perhaps the most bizarre experiment, he even tried to create a generation of wolves with no appetite for livestock. Working with problem Yellowstone wolves transplanted to his Flying D Ranch, his biologists fitted the wolves with electric collars, allowed them to approach the livestock, and then zapped them with a strong blast of electricity to discourage future interest.

A gray wolf is penned up at the Flying D in this undated photo from Outside Magazine. Photo courtesy Kurt Markus, Outside Magazine.

A gray wolf is penned up at the Flying D in this undated photo from Outside Magazine. Photo courtesy Kurt Markus, Outside Magazine.

Privatization in the Name of Preservation

The Turner of Wilkinson’s book lacks important nuances regarding his relationship with the people and the land in Montana. This at times fawning portrayal does find one villain, however: the controversial Tim Blixseth, founder of the ritzy Yellowstone Club ski resort. Blixseth destroyed the ecological integrity of his lands by subdividing and developing them, so Turner comes out looking like a much better fit for Montana.

A more fitting—and provocative—comparison may have been Atlanta media mogul James Cox Kennedy, a self-proclaimed nature enthusiast who has been fighting for nearly two decades to turn the area around his Ruby River property into his own private fiefdom, in addition to trying (and, so far, failing) to overturn Montana’s Stream Access Law. (This law allows recreationalists full use of natural waterways below the median high-water marks, regardless of streambed ownership and relative navigability.) Or, consider comparisons with ‘80s rocker Huey Lewis and investment banker Charles Schwab, both of whom own land on the Bitterroot River in Southwest Montana and have pressed for legislation to keep the public farther away than the law currently allows.

A member of the Public Lands and Water Access Association surveys Atlanta media mogul James Cox Kennedy’s efforts to construct his own private fiefdom: electrified wires strung across the public right-of-way at Lewis Lane on the Ruby River. Photo courtesy Lee Gustafson, Public Lands and Water Access Association.

A member of the Public Lands and Water Access Association surveys Atlanta media mogul James Cox Kennedy’s efforts to construct his own private fiefdom: electrified wires strung across the public right-of-way at Lewis Lane on the Ruby River. Photo courtesy Lee Gustafson, Public Lands and Water Access Association.

The Mitchell Slough was the subject of a long and contentious lawsuit challenging the Montana Stream Access Law and the definition of a “private” stream or ditch. The Mitchell Slough runs through land owned by Huey Lewis and Charles Schwab, who had previously denied public access before losing the case. Photo courtesy kpax.com.

The Mitchell Slough was the subject of a long and contentious lawsuit challenging the Montana Stream Access Law and the definition of a “private” stream or ditch. The Mitchell Slough runs through land owned by Huey Lewis and Charles Schwab, who had previously denied public access before losing the case. Photo courtesy kpax.com.

Kennedy’s lawyers have argued in his many court appearances that he would have no incentive to care for the Ruby if the public were allowed access. After losing a Montana Supreme Court appeal in the hotly contested Mitchell Slough case, Lewis dropped his decade-long efforts to improve the fish habitat in what he had previously treated as a private ditch. Why not obtain the necessary permits to continue the project, a reporter asked? “It’s public land. Why would I do that?” he replied.

Turner has done more for conservation than any of these other landowners, but as Turner himself says in the book’s prologue, all that separates him is an ability to operate at a larger scale, due to his money and willingness to part with it.

Despite the widely varying specifics of each case, all of these efforts rely on the same environmental strategy for preservation. Their land ethic is a push for a pristine West, but one stripped of the common folk and their frustrating public lands initiatives, leaving behind only streams unmuddied by the boots of fishermen, lands untrammeled by hunters or ranchers, and unobstructed views of shining mountains.

Nature Conservancy President Steve McCormick claims that more of the mega-rich are looking to emulate Turner, who places most of his lands in conservation easements that bar development. John Malone, a telecommunications magnate and the largest individual private landowner in the United States, is buying up his own “empire,” much of which he then preserves in perpetuity under conservation easements like Turner’s.

Undergirding these efforts at “privatization-for-preservation” is a new pro-rich take on the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and ‘80s, a movement in which Western states sought to wrest control of federal lands, usually so they could loosen usage restrictions or sell them off for a profit.

Montanans are quick to bemoan the loss of the “good ol’ days,” when Montana landowners were usually happy to let you tag out on their land in exchange for a handshake (my father used to bring them a big tray of lasagna as well). The increase in out-of-state ownership, they argue, has eroded that tradition, but so too has the realization by many ranchers that they can lucratively lease exclusive hunting rights to outfitters.

Buying the West in order to Save It

Until 2011, Turner was the largest private landowner in the United States (he’s currently second to Malone), with holdings larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. His lands have a gross domestic product higher than the nation of Belize. In an interview with The New York Times, Turner once summed up his philosophy on environmentalism and land ownership: “If I want to save the West, I’ll have to buy it.”

The owner of four large ranches in Montana, he’s also the man who once claimed he wanted to own enough property to be able to ride a horse from Canada to Mexico without ever having to leave his own land. As Wilkinson notes, a lot of his efforts are predicated upon his own notorious ego.

In the early days, Turner used questionable tactics to keep people off his land, according to long-time public access defender Tony Schoonen. Turner erected a gate on a county road leading to the Flying D, but was forced to remove it after a lawsuit. Where Cherry Creek dumps into the Madison, the Public Lands and Water Access Association took Turner to court over a fence restricting access and eventually signed a 20-year easement agreement and an out-of-court settlement to access the stream.

More recently, Turner has also worked to prevent Montanans from doing things like crossing onto public land at property corners or accessing state school trust lands. When Missoula Rep. Ellie Hill’s 2013 corner-crossing bill came up for a vote in the 2013 Legislature, supporters and journalists alike repeatedly turned to Ted Turner as an example of “mega-land owners” who could “lock up blocks of public land” by denying corner-crossing.

Sportsmen from all across Montana journeyed to the Capitol to testify in support of HB 235, the “corner-crossing bill,” which would have allowed the public to cross from one parcel of land to another where the two corners meet. Photo courtesy Eliza Wiley, Independent Record.

Sportsmen from all across Montana journeyed to the Capitol to testify in support of HB 235, the “corner-crossing bill,” which would have allowed the public to cross from one parcel of land to another where the two corners meet. Photo courtesy Eliza Wiley, Independent Record.

Montana earns the dubious distinction of holding nearly half of all the inaccessible public land in a surrounding six-state region. That is 2 million acres—the equivalent of two entire Absaroka-Beartooth Wildernesses—of utterly inaccessible lands belonging to all of us, but available only to the private landowners whose property borders it.

If you’d like to get onto Turner’s land, maybe to hunt one of the wild elk that roam onto and off of his property, be prepared to part with $14,000—nearly 60 percent of the average Montanan’s yearly income. And that cuts to the heart of why many Montanans still resent Turner, despite his commendable efforts to protect biodiversity, endangered species, and fragile environments. He works hard to preserve wildlife, but the result is a vast series of private reserves accessible only to Turner, his friends, and the ultra-wealthy.

A Land Ethic for Montana

Wilkinson made a worthwhile decision to focus on Turner’s environmental ethos instead of his tabloid controversies, but the reader is left with a sugary, uncritical look at the man and his land ethic. Wilkinson’s prologue veers uncomfortably close to hero-worship, following this tycoon-cum-Western rancher, a man who would buy the West to save it from itself, as he surveys his countryside near the Spanish Peaks.

Even Turner’s questionable decisions result in lessons learned for Turner Enterprises, Inc., and that is good enough for Wilkinson. As one reviewer laments, all real controversy and reflection are buried under Turner’s quest of “a vague, quixotic planet-saving.”

No reasonable Montanan would deny the benefit of the hundreds of thousands of dollars Turner has donated to worthy Montana charities, but we should maintain a healthy skepticism of leaving environmentalism to the 1 percent. Venture capitalist investments in green technology and private landowner stewardship have their places, but so too does the boots-on-the-ground work that has led to the creation of homegrown successes like the Stream Access Law—the bipartisan product of decades of work and compromise by dedicated citizens, fishermen, ranchers, Supreme Court justices, and legislators.

What unnerves Montanans is the fact that Turner’s attitude toward the environment contradicts the land ethic that we have labored to develop over decades. His perspective is based upon enormous monetary ability, powerful political influence, and a geopolitical agenda. That’s not an agency that everyday Montanans have.

Turner encourages others to follow his example of environmental preservation, but his model is fundamentally flawed—it is for the wealthy, by the wealthy. Certainly when Turner protects biodiversity or resists breaking up and subdividing his vast estates, the public will benefit from the increased genetic diversity and improved habitat, but what remains is a hollow, trickle-down environmentalism.

A more genuine Montana land ethic encourages balanced public interest in hunting, fishing, ranching, farming, hiking—in short, it fosters a public passion for the land. Turner will leave an environmental legacy, but it will not be one of encouraging future generations of conservationists or of developing a deep-rooted land ethic.

The privatization-for-preservation approach is antithetical to the U.S. conservation movement and the single biggest reason Turner still receives a cool welcome in Montana.

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