Ted Turner

 Turner on his Snowcrest Ranch south of Alder.

ALDER – Ted Turner poked at a fire crackling in the fireplace of the house on his Snowcrest Ranch, not far from the ghost towns and ruins of Montana’s 1860s gold rush.

Turner pointed out how the large picture windows offer a fine view of the golden hills, where the deer, antelope and his bison can play.

“I came out to Montana mainly to go fishing,” he drawled. Today he owns 15 ranches across the United States, four of them in Montana. “I bought a couple of the first places for fishing, and then I started buying for the bison and all the other wildlife, too.

“The other thing I like to do is ride horses. This is a beautiful place to ride horseback. We have elk and deer, and bear, antelope. We just saw about 20 antelope. We just came in from riding.”

Turner turns 73 in three weeks, and though he’s a little hard of hearing, he still stands tall and straight. “I do yoga, I lift weights and I try to walk at least an hour a day. I weigh the same thing I did in college, in fact, less.”

He is only a part-time Montanan, spending 10 to 12 weeks a year here. Yet Turner’s impact on the state and Bozeman area has been wide-ranging. Asked how he’d assess his influence on Montana, Turner struck a modest stance.

“As a very humble man, I would say minimal,” Turner said. “We’re local citizens, and we’ve tried to buy locally as much as possible and be good neighbors and good citizens.”

Known for his tremendous energy, exuberant enthusiasm and penchant for outrageous comments that earned him the nickname the Mouth of the South, Turner on this October morning seemed subdued. Perhaps he has learned to be more guarded in interviews. Perhaps time has made him kinder and gentler. Perhaps he has embraced the role of world elder statesman, or he’s just a little weary from travel.

Turner said they slipped into town last night and stopped in downtown Bozeman for a bison burger dinner at Ted’s Montana Grill. Now he’s here at the Snowcrest Ranch with some guests, including George McKerrow Jr., his partner in creating 46 Ted’s Montana Grills across the nation.

The rock fireplace is adorned with two family portraits and a priceless 19th century Albert Bierstadt painting of the American West, part of the collection he loaned to Bozeman’s Museum of the Rockies in 2002 for a special exhibit. Off to one side, a TV is tuned to cable news.

The leather couch, the oriental rugs, the wood and stonework give an air of understated Western elegance. It’s a fine house, but comfortable, not ostentatious, considering this is owned by one of the world’s most famous billionaires.

Everything Ted Turner has done in his life is big.

Creator of the 24-hour news channel CNN and a cable TV empire that revolutionized the industry, Turner is worth an estimated $2 billion and ranks No. 212 on Forbes’s list of the richest Americans.

Turner is still up there, even though a few years back, he lost his entire business empire – CNN, the Turner-branded TV channels, the MGM movie library, everything he had built up over a lifetime mdash; and saw nearly $8 billion of his personal fortune evaporate after his business partners arranged the AOL Time Warner merger that ended in disaster.

It could have been a staggering setback, but Ted Turner perseveres. He continues to do big things. The last chapter of his 2008 autobiography, “Just Call Me Ted,” is entitled “Onward and Upward.”

He pledged $1 billion to the United Nations and stuck to his commitment even as his fortune plummeted. He is one of America’s biggest philanthropists, having made BusinessWeek’s list of top 50 givers for many years.

Turner thinks big, too, trying to figure out ways to fight world poverty, halt the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, save endangered species, fight global poverty and secure women’s rights around the world.

In his drive to bring back the American bison, Turner has become the world’s biggest owner of buffalo with 55,000 head mdash; 11 percent of the 500,000 bison on the planet. He has done more than anyone to make bison meat more popular, through his restaurant chain and using his celebrity.

“I went on the Martha Stewart show for an hour” promoting bison, he said.

Turner was recently surpassed as the No. 1 landowner in America. Yet even at No. 2, he owns 2.2 million acres, as big an area as Yellowstone National Park, spread across seven states.

“As far as biodiversity is concerned, I bet I’m No. 1 by a mile,” he said.

In Montana, Turner’s four ranches total more than 153,000 acres. He has made Bozeman the national headquarters for his ranches and for the Turner Endangered Species Fund, which works on saving about 20 species, from wolves to woodpeckers, desert bighorn sheep to prairie dogs.

“It’s the only private endangered species initiative that we know of in the whole world,” he said, “and it’s headquartered in Bozeman, Montana.”

Together with Ted’s Montana Grill, his ranch businesses and foundations employ an estimated 125 to 200 Montanans.

His Turner Foundation has given away $20 million to Montana charities, especially youth and environmental groups over two decades.

In 2010, the Turner Foundation gave away $11 million nationwide, according to IRS filings, including more than $1.2 million given to 24 groups in Montana.

Montana recipients ranged from the Turner Endangered Species Fund ($484,250) to the Nature Conservancy ($50,000), Helena Education Foundation ($30,000), Ruby Valley Hospital Foundation ($10,000), Alder Volunteer Fire Department ($10,000), Harrison Schools ($10,000), Big Sky Youth Empowerment, ($10,000), youth groups in Dillon and Gallatin Gateway and land trusts in Missoula, Helena and Kalispell.

Bozeman recipients included the Greater Yellowstone Coalition ($166,000), Bozeman Youth Initiative (60,000), Wildlife Conservation Society ($50,000), International Wilderness Leadership Foundation ($30,000), Gallatin Valley Land Trust ($15,000) and, receiving $5,000 each, the American Indian Institute, American Wildlands, Big Brothers Big Sisters and Thrive.

“I’d like for (Montanans) to think I was a good neighbor,” Turner said.

“I lost a lot of money, but I gave a lot of money away, a billion and a half, away,” he said. “Now I’m in the top 10 of all-time givers in the United States. And I’m proud of that.”

Flying D Ranch

Ted Turner upset some Montanans in 1989 when he bought the Flying D Ranch, one of the largest ranches in the state.

He spent $21 million for the ranch, 113,000 acres up against the spectacular Spanish Peaks and the Gallatin National Forest, stretching from the Gallatin River to the Madison River, in an area with of some of the best trout fishing in the world.

Turner sold off the cattle, removed the haying and farm equipment, and tore out barbed wire fences, and attempted to restore the land to what it looked like before the white man came.

Then he brought in new livestock – bison mdash; and extolled their virtues as better suited to the West than cattle. Montana cattlemen took that as a poke in the eye.

Turner placed the 175-square-mile Flying D, as well as the Bar None near Maudlow, his first Montana ranch, under conservation easements, so that the land will remain unsubdivided, open space forever.

“The Flying D is an amazing piece of conservation work, because it’s 110,000 acres, and it’s right there mdash; between Big Sky and Bozeman mdash; right there,” Turner said,

emphasizing its prime, potentially profitable location. “And it’s never going to be developed.”

Development is encroaching on the north edge of the ranch, he said, “but at least that is where it will stop.”

Tim Blixseth took the opposite approach. A former Oregon timber man, Blixseth bought up 164,000 acres of Plum Creek Timber land and developed 15,000 acres at Big Sky into the Yellowstone Club, an exclusive ski area and playground for the ultra-rich. Blixseth made a fortune. He announced plans at one point to build the world’s most expensive spec home. Then the recession hit and the real estate bubble burst.

Blixseth’s Yellowstone Club filed for bankruptcy in 2008, though it continues today under new ownership.

“I don’t really like to be mentioned in the same breath with him,” Turner said, asked about Blixseth.

“We had a totally different attitude about life. I looked at the land as something to revere, to love and to care for. And he looked at it as something to make as much money as he possibly could. In Spanish, there’s a phrase, ‘Peso rapido.’ That’s a fast buck.”

Branding Montana

In May, Turner traveled to Havre to give the commencement speech at Montana State University-Northern and receive an honorary doctorate. He shared one of his favorite sayings with graduates:

“Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell, and advertise!”

Sensible advice from a man who started out in advertising, inheriting a billboard company at age 24 when his father committed suicide. Turner soon started looking for a way into television, which seemed to have a brighter future in advertising.

Turner never intended to, yet buying his ranches mdash; and bringing his third wife, actress Jane Fonda, to Montana – gave the state millions of dollars worth of free advertising. Their courtship attracted lots of national media attention.

“We were celebrities, yes,” he said thoughtfully.

The arrival of Ted and Jane, as the magazines called them, gave Montana a new aura of being cool. That, along with the 1992 Robert Redford movie set in Montana, “A River Runs Through It,” and a national surge in fly fishing’s popularity, combined to rebrand Montana as a sexy destination.

The old Montana, traditional and ag-based, was changing, and a new Montana was emerging, its economy and culture based increasingly on newcomers attracted by recreation and quality of life, second-home builders, high-tech commuters and people with new thirsts for Chardonnay and lattes.

“It’s Big Sky country,” Turner said. “Something would have to be wrong with you not to want to be here.”

Staying at the Snowcrest Ranch didn’t mean he has forsaken the Flying D. In his book, Turner described how, after he and Fonda divorced in 2000, he returned to the Flying D house they had built together. He sat on the floor between their matching closets, hers now empty, and cried.

“I still go there,” Turner said, answering a question, and added quietly, “I’ve gotten over the sadness, pretty much.”

Bison and wolves

Thirty years ago, Turner started out with just three bison.

Back then there were only 170,000 bison in the world. Today there are 500,000, and Turner owns 55,000.

“When I was a little boy, I read all the books and magazines about wildlife, and I was just horrified that we had come within a couple hundred animals, at the turn of the 19th century, in Canada and the U.S., of extinction,” Turner said.

“I wanted to make a significant difference, and it did make a significant difference. The price of bison meat went up as more people learned about it,” he said.

“Bison are selling for almost twice as much as beef now per pound, and years ago it was the other way around.”

However, the bison market remains miniscule compared to cattle, he said. About 70,000 to 75,000 bison are slaughtered each year for meat. That’s dwarfed by the beef industry, which slaughters 125,000 animals every single day.

“This will be the first year in 30 years I ever made money on bison,” Turner said. “I didn’t do it to make money. I did it because I like bison and wanted to see them come back.”

Wolves from Yellowstone Park have expanded to the Flying D and are eating some of its 4,000 bison, but Turner doesn’t mind. He has a full-time wolf biologist who keeps track of them. He likes watching wolves.

“They’re eating some bison and some elk, but they’ve got to eat, too,” he said. “They’re not eating as much as people are.

“They’re pretty tame, because we haven’t done anything but welcome them.”

Wildlife wars

Wildlife and Turner have a lot in common. Both create controversy.

Turner accepted the governor’s request to set aside a temporary home in one corner of the Flying D for 80 bison for a quarantined, brucellosis-free Yellowstone Park herd. At the end of five years, when the state hopes to have someplace to put the wild bison permanently, it will get the animals back plus 25 percent of the calves.

Turner will keep 75 percent of the calves as compensation, instead of cash the state doesn’t have, for the herd’s care and feeding.

Critics have charged this amounts to privatization of wildlife. Russ Miller, general manager of Turner’s ranch operations, defended the arrangement.

“It was the only alternative to wholesale slaughter of bison coming out of the park,” Miller said.

It fits the mission statement of Turner’s ranches, Miller said, which is to manage the land in “an economically sustainable” and “ecologically sensitive” manner “while promoting conservation of native species.”

Bill Fairhurst, a retired railroad man, and the Public Lands Access Association battled with Turner for many years in court. Fairhurst and other sportsmen fought Turner’s land swap with the state in the 1990s, arguing it hurt public access. They fought the poisoning of Cherry Creek on the Flying D and proposed that the state Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department eliminate thriving but nonnative rainbow and brown trout, creating instead habitat for the rare westslope cutthroat trout.

“Oh, I don’t hate him,” Fairhurst said of Turner. “Some things he does are badly misguided, but I think he means well.”

Miller defended the state land swap, saying it gave Turner 6,000 acres of state land scattered throughout Flying D, but in return the state received 11,000 acres from the Snowcrest Ranch, plus 1,100 acres at Ulm Pishkun, one of the largest prehistoric Indian buffalo jumps.

Commercial elk hunting on the Flying D has also raised concerns about privatizing wildlife. Fairhurst said Turner opened the eyes of Montana ranchers to how much money could be made from private hunting and locking out the public.

Miller responded that in the 22 years Turner has owned the Flying D, about 650 hunters have paid to hunt bull elk. The ranch takes only 35 hunters a year, who pay around $13,000 for the privilege. Revenue from those hunts barely offsets the value of the grazing the ranch provides to wildlife, Miller said.

In 22 years, the Flying D invited 8,500 public hunters to hunt cow elk. The special late-season hunt ended after a disagreement between the ranch and the state FWP. Miller said the agency wanted the public to hunt at the same time as the private hunters, but that wouldn’t have worked.

“We got a lot of letters from people” thanking the Flying D for the public hunt and the chance to “put some meat in the freezer,” Miller said.

The Flying D remains “a bull factory,” Miller added, that has increased the public hunter success rate outside the ranch’s boundaries.

Mike Phillips, executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, said the Cherry Creek experiment is working “smashingly.”

Phillips said Turner provided more than $100,000 toward the Cherry Creek project, and also quietly contributed $750,000 over several years to pay for a wolf biologist, to assist federal wolf recovery efforts and resolve conflicts with ranchers by trapping problem wolves.

“I’m quite proud of my boss,” Phillips said. “His connection with this work is so intimate. He has poured his heart and soul into it.”

Counting Turner’s efforts through his UN Foundation and efforts to control nuclear weapons, Phillips said, “He has done more on behalf of the environment, to improve the circumstance of humanity, than anybody” in history.

Asked about Cherry Creek, Turner said he was “just helping out” at FWP’s request.

“But you know, you can’t do anything without upsetting somebody. Hardly anything,” Turner said. “If there’s anything done in life, you have to go in and do it.”

The bigger picture

Turner has his eyes on really big prizes now.

Nuclear weapons. Global warming. International poverty. Women’s rights. Cleaning up the oceans.

Those are just some of the global issues Turner is trying to tackle, through his work with the United Nations, the Nuclear Threat Initiative he co-chairs and the Turner Foundation.

“I’m working really hard,” Turner said. The problems are huge, but he sounds optimistic.

“Humanity, we’ve made a lot of progress in the last couple hundred years,” he said. “We had slavery, and a couple hundred years ago not one woman in the world had equal rights. Today half the women in the world do.

“It should be 100 percent. That’s one of the things I’m working on is the role of women, through the United Nations,” he said.

In places like Saudi Arabia, he said, “Women can’t get an education, can’t get a job. That’s just wrong!”

Turner has made gestures toward peace in Montana, too, mending fences.

Jim Peterson, Montana Senate president and executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association from 1990 to 2000, said, “When he first bought the ranch, he was, I think, awfully critical of the cattle business. He made some pretty off the cuff comments.… They were somewhat offended.”

Around the time of the land swap, Turner invited the Montana Stockgrowers board members to tour his ranch and spent the day with them.

Turner was “open, frank and honest,” Peterson said. “I was impressed with the tour. It’s a beautiful ranch, one of the largest in the state.

“He’s certainly softened his attitude toward beef,” Peterson said. “Over time that relationship has improved.”

Mike Clark, executive director Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said Turner served on the GYC board for 12 years. “He was a leader, a generous supporter,” Clark said. “He has an outrageous sense of humor.

“I think Ted is a person who puts his money where his mouth is,” Clark said. “He follows through consistently. People respect that. He tends to attract controversy because he is so outspoken.”

Denise Hayman, Bozeman School Board chair, met Turner several times when her husband, Michael Scott, was executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

“There are a lot of wealthy people out there who do nothing,” Hayman said. “Ted will leave a legacy.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

Ted Turner Timeline

A timeline of the life of Ted Turner.

Year Events
1938 Born Robert Edward Turner III, Nov. 19, Cincinnati, Ohio
1959 Suspended by Brown University for having girl in room, leaves college because dad is horrified Ted wants to study Classics, refuses to pay tuition
1963 Inherits billboard business at age 24 when father commits suicide
1970 Buys struggling UHF TV station in Atlanta
1976 Launches Turner Broadcasting System SuperStation via satellite, Buys losing Atlanta Braves team
1977 Wins Americas Cup sailing Courageous, gets nickname Capt. Outrageous, Makes cover of Sports Illustrated
1980 Creates CNN, first global 24-hour news channel
1986 Creates Goodwill Games, Buys MGM library, including Wizard of Oz and Looney Tunes
1987 Buys first Montana ranch, Bar None near Maudlow, for the fishing
1988 Turner Network Television debuts with Gone With the Wind
1989 Buys Flying D Ranch near Bozeman
1990 Creates Turner Foundation charity
1991 Named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, Marries third wife, actress Jane Fonda
1995 Braves win World Series
1996 TBS merges with Time Warner
1997 Creates Turner Endangered Species Fund, OKs New Line Cinema making “Lord of the Rings” trilogy
1998 Pledges $1 billion of his $3 billion to United Nations
2000 Divorce from Jane Fonda, Time Warner merges with AOL; Turner’s shares worth nearly $10 billion, Internet stocks start to plummet, Turner “fired,” stripped of control of cable division
2002 Opens Ted’s Montana Grill, first of 46, with George McKerrow Jr.
2003 Resigns as vice chairman of AOL Time Warner, Has lost nearly $8 billion in 30 months
Today Worth $2 billion. Owns world’s largest bison herd, is No. 2 landowner in U.S., 2 million acres, Co-chairman of Nuclear Threat Initiative, working to reduce threats from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, Chairman of Turner Foundation and United Nations Foundation, working on nuclear weapons, climate change, endangered species, international poverty