In spring 1992, environmental journalist Todd Wilkinson was driving through a snowstorm on the 113,000-acre Flying D Ranch near Bozeman when a bull bison wandered into the middle of the dirt road. It wasn't an ideal situation. He was already running late for his interview with the Flying D's new owner, and Wilkinson had heard the man had little patience for tardiness. Eventually, though, Wilkinson made it to the interview, which would end up being the first of many between the journalist and the charismatic billionaire whom the media once dubbed "Captain Outrageous." In his new book, Last Stand: Ted Turner's Quest to Save a Troubled Planet, Wilkinson recalls the first thing Turner said to him when he finally arrived for the interview: "My name's Ted. What's yours?"
Today, Turner owns approximately 2 million acres of ranch land in 12 states and Argentina, where he maintains the largest commercial bison herd in North America (55,000 head). That herd has earned him a new nickname: "The Bison Baron."
The Indy recently caught up with Wilkinson to discuss the Bozeman author's new book, Turner's legacy and how capitalism and environmentalism can co-exist.
Turner is best known as the founder of CNN and TBS, owner of the Atlanta Braves and a bombastic sharer of opinions. How did you get interested in writing about him?
Todd Wilkinson: When I first interviewed him 20 years ago, I didn't know much other than what the headlines were in newspapers. Generally, the public had this notion of Ted Turner as being outspoken and some called him a loudmouth. He had this reputation for saying outrageous things, and I would say he was deservedly pilloried for some of the things he's said. (For example, Turner once publicly referred to abortion opponents as "idiots" and "bozos.") But with this book I wanted to go behind the public persona.
Your book makes the argument that Turner's efforts to restore bison to the American landscape make him not only a consummate capitalist but an environmentalist of the highest order. How do those ideas dovetail?
TW: Early in his career Turner subscribed to the ideals of Ayn Randthis sort of me-first selfishness, a rational self-interested approach. But he ultimately rejects that. One of his motivations was meeting with Jacques Cousteau aboard the Calypso (Cousteau's research vessel). Cousteau said to him that he could do good in the world and make money and become successful as a businessman. Moving forward, Turner began to realize that capitalism isn't the problem but how we've been practicing capitalism is. It's been presented as the economy versus ecology argumentthat in order to have financial prosperity we have to trash landscapes. I think Ted charts a middle ground in this time in our country when everything is polemic, everything is divisive and everything is expressed in ideological terms. Ted thinks that's nonsense. You can be a good steward of the land and still record a profit.
In the book, you mention that Turner wasn't immediately welcomed by his neighbors in Montana, and he made matters worse when he publicly disparaged beef cattle as inferior to bison. How does he fit in these days?
TW: When he arrived in Montana, many people thought Turner might turn around and subdivide his land. He put those fears to rest when he put a conservation easement on 113,000 acres. And there were people even at Montana State University who thought Turner's venture into bison would be a fly-by-night operation. It would just be something that he would deal with and then move on. But he has longevity here. He has built his bison herd and expanded his land ownership. He's proven that he's committed to this.
Other books have been written about Turner, and in 2008 he penned a memoir. Your book delves into issues not formerly covered, namely the suicide of his father, Ed, and his marriage with actress Jane Fonda. How did you get him to open up?
TW: So many celebrities have this sort of public face, but there's often a lot more going on behind the scenes. Turner is an incredibly private personvery hard to penetrate. It took a while to actually get to the point where we could have a discussion where he actually lowered his guard. It really took a lot of prying and pushing and back-and-forth to get him to go to that place.
You've known Turner for more than 20 years now, and spent eight years writing a book about him. Do you consider him a friend?
TW: We are friendly. He trusts me. But my goal was never to become Ted's friend. My goal was to maintain an arm's length sense of objectivity and to really push him in ways his friends couldn't. And so in discussions about his father's suicide and the impact it had on him or discussing his relationship with Jane Fonda, he told me it was really difficult to read those chapters. But he was grateful they were in there. I didn't enter this project to hobnob with Ted. What I did it for was to investigate Turner, and I think anyone who reads this book will realize that Ted isn't a saint, doesn't aspire to be a saint. He's a perfectly flawed human being, and whether you like him or don't like him, I hope it challenges people to realize that he's far more complicated than you think.