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Tuesday, March 04, 2014
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Todd Wilkinson, Ted Turner, and the “Radical Middle”

By Guest Author, Amy Weinfurter, Yale F&ES '15

“Capitalism isn’t the problem, it’s how we’ve been practicing capitalism.” This quote, from Ted Turner, reverberates through Todd Wilkinson portrait of the media mogul’s life in Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet. In the book, Wilkinson traces Turner’s path, from his days as the outspoken founder of CNN, to his equally controversial and pioneering presence in environmental conservation and philanthropy. As the book explores Turners’ ability to disrupt business as usual, it also considers the new possibilities and questions that emerge when then line between environmental conservation and capitalism thins. 

Wilkinson sees Turner’s journey as a study in “how places can transform people.” For Turner, the connection with nature started early. The swamps of North Carolina provided a refuge from a troubled childhood, and bison captured his imagination; he began to think of them as his totem animal. This connection to wildlife and wild places would bubble up throughout Turner’s career, from his work pioneering environmental programming at CNN, to his attempted reintroduction of wildlife onto a Florida plantation. Eventually, his love for the outdoors led him to purchase Montana’s Flying D ranch. The transaction, which started as a way to fuel Turner’s passion for fly-fishing, became a watershed moment for its new owner, the community around him, and the field of re-wilding and environmental conservation.

The quest to restore the Flying D ranch led Turner to an unusual solution, an approach in the “radical middle,” between typical land conservation strategies, on one hand, and traditional ranching efforts, on the other.  He replaced cattle with bison, and founded a sustainably managed restaurant chain, Ted’s Montana Grill, to promote them as an alternative to beef. Many laud Turner’s approach as a much-needed integration of economic and environmental principles, that factors people and the planet, as well as profits, into its bottom line. However, his approach also generates controversy. Environmentalists worry about the potential domestication of Turner’s bison herds, especially in light of collaborations between state wildlife agencies and Turner Enterprises. Ranchers often object to Turner’s reintroduction of bison and prairie dogs to Western landscapes, worrying that these creatures will threaten their livestock through competition or disease

Wilksinon’s profile suggests that, for his part, Turner sees his approach as a way to leverage to environmental efforts as far as possible. Making conservation economically feasible, he argues, is key to making it more widely adopted. By managing bison to mimic their historic role in maintaining healthy grasslands, Turner also improves the land’s ability to sustain other kinds of wildlife. In addition to an estimated 55,000 bison, “populations of mule deer, white-tailed deer, Rocky Mountain elk, Rocky Mountain gray wolf, Shiras moose, pronghorn antelope, black bear, mountain lions and badgers, among others,” roam his ranches. Wilkinson likens Turner’s approach to conservation to a conservationist’s Noah’s ark; protecting a keystone species creates a refuge for a whole host of other creatures. Similarly, Turner’s championing of prairie dogsprotects more that 150,000 of these animals, but also preservesa host of other creatures, including the endangered black-footed ferret and burrowing owl, that rely on them for as a source of prey and habitat creation. 

Turner’s work promoting peace parks also leverages conversation, but from a different angle; it extends the benefits of conservation as a tool to address global conflict. In his presentation, Wilkinson cites Turner’s realization that “deep down, almost everyone cares deeply about wildlife,” as a guiding principle in his championing of peace parks. These trans-boundary protected areas focus on the common affinity that animals create, to provide neutral spaces, as well as eco-tourism and revenue-generating opportunities, for both sides of conflict-ridden borders. Turner has promoted the creation of a park to protect the biodiversity in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, and to foster dialogue between the two countries. In this arena, and in his work promoting the role of the United Nations in conflict resolution and global governance, nuclear disarmament, and women’s rights, Turner has a knack for seeing new ways for getting things done.

Wilkinson paints this technology-disrupting identity as the common link across Turner’s philanthropic work and media background. Whether pioneering the 24-hour news cycle, or re-imaging re-wilding, his greatest successes involve challenges to the status quo. His recent foray into clean energy is no exception: by partnering with one of the largest coal-burners in the U.Sto create asolar energy project, he has formed a renewable energy “odd couple.”  As the project develops, it’s likely he will continue redraw business models that make enterprise work for the planet.   

Todd Wilkinson’s presentation was co-sponsored by YCELP and YCEI, as part of the Climate and Energy Bookshelf speaker series. The series features new publications by renowned environmental policy thinkers including Brian Keane, Mary Wood, and Tom Kizzia. 

A podcast interview with Todd Wilkinson is availble on SoundCloud.

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.

Photo courtesy of Danielle Lehle, Yale F&ES '15.

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