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Ted Turner Turns Back Time Across the West
By Barry Massey   Associated Press
VERMEJO PARK RANCH, N.M. — Ted Turner, the CNN mogul who has speeded up our sense of time and sent us hurtling into the future, has embarked in just the opposite direction across the American West.

Since 1987, he has bought a staggering 1.7 million acres in Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas — becoming the largest private landowner in the United States, according to Worth magazine — and is using his fortune to turn back the hands of time.

He is restoring the buffalo and other native animals and plants and tearing away the barbed wire, bringing back the wide-open vistas that existed before the West was won.

Turner wants to preserve what this country looked like "before white man was so bloody common across the landscape, before so many shopping malls and so many roads and so many subdivisions," says Mike Phillips, executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund.

In New Mexico, the billionaire owns almost 1.1 million acres — 1.5 percent of the nation's fifth-largest state. That includes the 580,000-acre Vermejo Park Ranch, bought from Pennzoil Co. in 1996 for a reported $80 million.

It is perhaps the crown jewel of Turner's Western holdings because of its size — nearly three times the area of New York City — and its diversity. The ranch consists of high prairie, lush valleys, pine and aspen forests, and peaks of nearly 13,000 feet.

The ranch also serves as a model of Turner's vision of the West.

Nearly 600 miles of barbed wire once cut across Vermejo, and 7,000 head of cattle grazed there. Today, half of the interior fencing is gone, and so are the cattle. Buffalo again roam the grasslands, sharing the 50-mile-wide property with elk, deer, antelope, eagles, cougars and bear.

Turner considers buffalo more environmentally friendly than cattle, which were introduced to the region by early settlers. Unlike cattle, buffalo don't strip the vegetation and cause erosion. With cattle gone at Vermejo, the grass is knee-high, and willows and cottonwoods stand along streambanks that once were trampled almost bare.

Turner also has restored fire as a tool for managing the grasslands and forests. Carpets of grass have replaced brush and small trees, returning the landscape to the more natural state that existed before man began fighting wildfires.

At Vermejo, he is also working to restore the endangered black-footed ferret and increase the number of prairie dogs and Rio Grande cutthroat trout.

Similar projects are under way on other Turner holdings: restoring West Slope cutthroat trout at the Flying D ranch in Montana; reintroducing the blowout penstemon, an endangered plant, in Nebraska; restoring the red-cockaded woodpecker at the Turner plantation in northern Florida; returning desert bighorn sheep to the Fra Cristobal Mountains at the Armendaris Ranch in New Mexico; and raising endangered Mexican wolves on the Ladder Ranch in New Mexico.

"Mr. Turner recognizes that he is one of the few people with the assets and interest in finding large blocs of relatively pristine pieces of private property with the goal of protecting, enhancing and restoring those back to their ecological integrity," says David Vackar, general manager of Vermejo.

At the same time, Turner isn't averse to making a profit from his properties.

Vermejo is open to the paying public for luxury hunting and fishing — up to $12,000 for a guide and a weeklong chance to stalk trophy elk.

And Turner's buffalo offer a potential way to make money from health-conscious consumers wanting a leaner alternative to beef. Turner has the biggest commercial herd in the United States, with about 20,000 scattered among his ranches.

"Protecting the environment doesn't mean you have to lose money," Vackar says.

In southern New Mexico, where Turner has owned property for eight years, residents have come to accept, or at least tolerate, the media mogul, his buffalo and his environmentalist leanings.

"He supports a lot of environmental programs. We disagree with him on that. But it's his money," says Jack Cain, a 73-year-old rancher who is neighbor of Turner's 360,000-acre Armendaris Ranch near Truth or Consequences. "He can spend the money any way he wants."

Although the U.S. government owns protected land throughout the West, conservationists see the efforts of individuals such as Turner as critical.

"What I see as the most significant challenge is maintaining the intactness of large habitat blocs in the West," says Bruce Runnels, vice president and director of the Rocky Mountain division of the Nature Conservancy.

"To be successful over the long term at maintaining native plants and animals and habitat requires that we think on a larger scale, because ecological processes work on a larger scale."

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