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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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."