Ted Turner Puts Conservation Money Where His Mouth Is

It wasn't long after Ted Turner started amassing a sizable real estate portfolio that he had an unusual idea on how to make some money from it.

Turner owns about two million acres in the United States and is the largest private landholder in the country.

ted Turner
Source: Ted Turner
ted Turner

"Two million acres is about 2,500 square miles ... and if I owned a property a mile wide, it would stretch from New York to San Francisco. I could cut the United States in half and I could charge a toll for people passing over my land from north to south and really make a fortune without a whole lot of work. But I don't think it would be feasible and it certainly wouldn't be popular and I decided long ago not to do that. But I did think about it."

It wouldn't have been the first time Turner did something unpopular. The strong-spirited, outspoken billionaire who created CNN, TBS and other groundbreaking television programming has seen more than a few controversies during his career, most stemming from insensitive, off-the-cuff remarks about religion and ethnicity.

'Mouth of the South'

In 2001, he made one of his most well-known verbal snafus, when, at a meeting with CNN staff members on Ash Wednesday, he referred to those with ash on their foreheads as "Jesus Freaks." According to The New York Times, Turner went on to say "Shouldn't you guys be working for Fox?"

Such comments ultimately earned him the nicknames "The Mouth of the South" and "Captain Outrageous."

Turner is still outspoken, but at nearly 72, he's mellowed a bit. His last notable controversial comment of record involved global warming, a pet issue for Turner. In 2008, he said on the Charlie Rose television program that if steps aren't taken soon to address global warming, we'd all be dead or eating each other by mid-century.

"We'll be eight degrees hotter in 30 or 40 years and basically none of the crops will grow," Turner said during the wide-ranging, hour-long interview with PBS's Rose.

"Most of the people will have died and the rest of us will be cannibals," Turner, then 69, said. "Civilization will have broken down. The few people left will be living in a failed state — like Somalia or Sudan — and living conditions will be intolerable."

Today, almost all of his public comments concern global warming, conservation, renewable energy and making the world a better place to live — things he says he's thought about since childhood.

"Nature and conservation go hand in hand," Turner said from his Atlanta offices. "If you like or love nature, you've gotta love conservation. Even when I was 10 years old, I could see development threatened the natural world.

"And as I read about animals and birds, I learned about the extinction of the passenger pigeon and the Labrador duck and other species in North America, particularly the bison," he continued. "I started thinking, gee, if there was something I could do to help bring back the buffalo, I'd sure like to do it."

Conservation Controversy

Today, he's been able to use his land and money to make those childhood dreams a reality.

But even his conservation efforts haven't been without a bit of controversy. Back in 2003, he funded a project to restore the westslope cutthroat trout to Cherry Creek and Cherry Lake in Montana. The project involved using the poison antimycin to kill existing fish in the stream.

As the Bozeman Daily Chronicle put it in July of that year, "The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks will initiate the poisoning of Cherry Lake and Cherry Creek on Aug. 1. The reason: to kill a thriving fishery and attempt to plant a new one.

"The Cherry Creek fiasco will kill tens of thousands of wild trout ... and also their entire aquatic insect and amphibian population ... for what? A supposedly imperiled species?"

Most of the creek miles flow on Turner's Flying D Ranch near Bozeman.

Turner Ranches

Starting with just three bison in 1978, Turner has grown his herd to 52,000 head, the largest privately-owned herd in the United States. All of Turner's ranches are working businesses, but also support many progressive environmental projects including water-resource management, reforestation and the reintroduction of native species to the land, including the prairie dog, burrowing owl and black ferret. See a map of Turner's US ranch holdings.

Paul E. Tessier | Photodisc | Getty Images

One example is Turner's 358,643-acre Armendaris Ranch in New Mexico. It's home to a reintroduced population of desert bighorn sheep and Bolson's tortoise. Both species are managed by the Turner Endangered Species Fund.

The Flying D Ranch in Montana is at the forefront of in-stream flow water resource management, promoting habitat for abundant fish populations and advancing the establishment of west slope cutthroat trout. The Flying D principal enterprises are bison and hunting.

Turner's Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico accommodates up to 75 guests at the main lodge and also offers a more remote experience at the six-bedroom Costilla Lodge, located on the flanks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Vermejo Park also has a restaurant as well as gift and tackle shops.

Other Projects

Turner continues to purchase land adjacent to his existing properties — most recently, a 9,000-acre property in Georgia. And while he doesn't develop his ranch land, some development does occur on these adjacent properties, like his renewable energy initiative, Cimarron Solar Facility, near one of his ranches in New Mexico.

Turner Renewable Energy and Southern Company partnered in January to develop renewable energy resources, with the initial focus on large-scale solar photovoltaic plants in the Southwest. Cimarron is the first fruit of that partnership.

Cimarron Solar Facility
Source: southerncompany.com
Cimarron Solar Facility

The two also partnered with First Solar, which initially developed the 30-megawatt project and is the contractor for engineering, procurement and construction as well as operation and maintenance.

Construction began earlier this year, and should be completed later this fall. Consisting of approximately 500,000 2-by-4-foot photovoltaic modules, it will harness enough energy to provide power to 9,000 homes.

"The clean, renewable energy business is badly handicapped today with the lack of a federal energy program," Turner said. "The subsidies go to coal and oil. They should be phased out and given to clean renewables that aren't poisoning the atmosphere and the environment."

Turner also wants to enter wind power but said he has yet to find the right project.

In 2002, Turner launched Ted's Montana Grill with partner and restaurateur George McKerrow, Jr. With 55 locations in 19 states around the country, the restaurant bills itself as eco-friendly, emphasizing its bison offerings (the meat outsells beef 2-to-1 across the chain and comes, in part, from Turner's own herd), reintroducing the paper straw in all of its restaurants, and keeping its facilities 99 percent plastic free.

The restaurant's menus are also printed on 100 percent recycled paper, and all takeaway containers are biodegradable. In its Tallahassee, Fla., location, the restaurant even installed 66 solar panels on its roof.

"I'm looking out my window here at my office — we're installing solar panels over our parking lot as we sit here," Turner said of his corporate offices on Luckie Street in Atlanta.

"It's time to stop killing things and start treating each other with love and respect," Turner said. "That's why I gave a billion dollars to the UN and why I've given hundreds of millions away to conservation. I put my money where my mouth is."

Watch CNBC Titans, Ted Turner, premiering Wednesday, Sept. 22 at 9 p.m. ET, with reairs at 10 p.m., midnight and 1a.m.