In the public imagination, Ted Turner, the founder of CNN and one of Forbes’ richest people in America tends to be synonymous with 24-hour new cycles, rather than with bison ranching and conscientious capitalism. However, the media mogul is building an environmental legacy as formidable as his media empire. In his recently released book, Last Stand: Ted Turner's Quest to Save a Troubled Planet, Todd Wilkinson explores Turner’s turn back toward the natural landscapes that inspired him as a child. He also considers how Turner’s business acumen and environmental values influence each other. Can capitalism, often framed as the driving force behind environmental degradation, offer a way to reverse its collateral damage to the natural world?
With approximately two million acres of personal and ranch land, Turner is the second largest individual landowner in North America. His ranches have played a key role in reintroducing bison to the landscape. Turner Enterprises manages over 55,000 bison – the largest herd ever maintained by one person – across the various Turner properties. State agencies often partner with his ranches, in order to take advantage of their expertise and resources in bison research and management. However, Turner’s efforts also breed controversy. His initial attempts at reintroduction involved the release of one live cougar and three Nebraska black bears, and triggered a threat of misdemeanor charges from the state of Florida.
While his work to return large bison herds to the American West has taken a scientific approach, grounded in careful management, it still raises questions and ruffles feathers. The cattle industry “is generally no big fan of Mr. Turner’s,” worrying that bison populations may introduce diseases to livestock or compete with them for grazing on federal lands. On the other hand, Turner’s involvement with genetically wild herds has some environmental groups concerned about thinning lines between wild and domestic bison. A 2010 lawsuit argued that the state of Montana’s collaboration with Turner facilitated “bison’s passage from wild to owned,” countering the mission to manage wildlife for the public benefit.
Turner, in turn, counters that buffalo herds provide a healthier alternative to beef. He points out that since they have evolved along with the Western landscape, they are hardier in the face of its challenges, and, if managed carefully, able to fill a historical role in maintaining healthy grasslands. While his founding of Ted’s Montana Grill, which operated 44 restaurants in 16 states as of November 2013, raises concerns about the potential for the domestication of wild bison, Turner’s approach highlights the need to make ecological sustainability financially feasible.
This focus on the alignment of environmental and business benefits extends to his interest and sponsorship of clean energy. Turner Enterprises currently holds five solar power installations. The largest of these, the Campo Verde Solar Facility, can produce 139 megawatts of energy, enough to power nearly 48,000 homes. Clean energy sources also fuel many of Ted Montana Grill’s restaurants and Turner ranch properties. Whether with bison or with energy, Turner blurs the lines between enterprise and idealism, and between public and private accomplishment. His approach to restoring the American West raises challenging, promising questions about environmentalism’s own frontier.
A nationally acclaimed journalist, Wilkinson brings 25 years of environmental reporting to bear on Turner’s ambitious and sometimes controversial efforts to repair degraded landscapes. His book explores the questions raised by Turner’s pioneering mix of public, private, and environmental enterprise. It also considers the motivations behind philanthropy, along with the personal history that led Turner to become such an iconic figure in environmental conservation.
His talk, co-sponsored by YCELP and YCEI, is part of the Climate and Energy Bookshelf speaker series featuring new publications by renowned environmental policy thinkers including Brian Keane, Mary Wood, and Tom Kizzia. It begins at 5:30 PM, on Tuesday, February 18th, in Kroon Hall’s Burke Auditorium (195 Prospect Street). The talk is free and open to the public.
Amy Weinfurter is a first-year Masters of Environmental Management (MEM '15) candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, focusing on the intersection between environmental communication and policy. Before arriving at Yale, she studied English and environmental science at Colby College, and worked with non-profit organizations in Colorado and Washington, D.C., on communication, watershed management, and community outreach and engagement initiatives.