Ted Turner Is on a Mission to Save Everything
If mountains are said to loom, to appear suddenly in portentous size, no range quite so captures the sudden part as Fra Cristobal, a 17-by-7-mile massif erupting from southern New Mexico’s desert scrub and lava fields some 150 miles south of Albuquerque. Deserted but for herds of springing pronghorn and dust-bathing bison, they attest to eons past in marine-fossiled canyon walls and unearthed sauropod bones. Hiking to the top is a matter of instinct, for there are no trails other than the occasional gameway. At the summit, a rattlesnake testily guards foreign splashes of color afforded by wildflowers fertilized by the scat of endemic creatures representing the full mammalian food chain from predatory mountain lion down to forsaken ground mouse. Conquistadors trekking from Mexico City to the territorial capital of Santa Fe on the Camino Real mapped this 100-mile stretch of desert the Jornada del Muerto, or Dead Man’s Journey, as they shed chain mail in their stagger north, etching the baked earth in a weary line still visible 400 years hence.
That the present so closely resembles the past is partly eco-systemic—neither man nor beast ever stood much chance of fully taming the Jornada del Muerto—and partly the efforts of the media mogul Ted Turner, who has spent much of the last 30 years puzzling back together the broken pieces of this western landscape until it more closely resembled a pre-European-contact picture. Now, after a relatively mum decade, the man who invented cable news is back to the bullhorn, evangelizing via a fledgling ecotourism business known as Ted Turner Expeditions (TTX).
“We’ve gotten rid of all the cattle on our property,” he explains, in an interview that rockets from “Call me, Ted” to nuclear disaster in the space of a sentence. “I don’t have a single cow. We’ve replaced them with bison, the original animal that populated the plains, that belong here. They’re more environmentally friendly as far as grazing is concerned. Cattle evolved in Europe, where there’s copious rainfall and lush grass, whereas bison grew up on the plains with no cattle or horses. The bison can get by on a much drier environment than cattle can. That’s for starters. Our ranches don’t have domestic sheep or domestic goats. They didn’t come from America either; they came over from Europe. The most numerous bird in the U.S. is the starling. There were none in North America. They were brought over from Europe to eat caterpillars on fruit trees, and they’ve taken off and become the most numerous bird in North America. Not one person in 10 knows it. You didn’t know it, did you?”
In conversation, Turner will go on like this. But the man once known as “the Mouth of the South” is also a man of action. Some 51,000 native ungulates now graze across 1.9 million acres in the western U.S. on 14 Turner ranches, two of which are newly open to the public through TTX in southern New Mexico. These sister ranches, the 156,000-acre riparian range Ladder Ranch and the nearby 363,000-acre geologic marvel Armendaris Ranch, home of the Fra Cristobal Mountains, are what his staff calls “conservation ranches,” whole ecosystems Turner is restoring to native states as models for environmental education. While the National Park Service celebrates its centennial this year as one of the country’s best ideas, Turner’s land represents a new kind of park, a private national park, encompassing the ideals and ambitions of its outspoken owner.
“When I first started, I wanted a natural landscape as much as possible with animals, birds, and plants,” the 77-year-old tells me. “But there’s a problem with plants too. You’ve heard of kudzu? That was brought over from China to put on railroad borders to stop erosion, and kudzu went crazy and grows 90 feet a year. I bet you didn’t know that? And you practically can’t get rid of that once it gets established. Same thing in the Everglades with pythons. They took over native snakes and other creatures. Importing foreign species is a very tricky business.”
Perhaps that is why introducing a foreign species known as Everyman to his land via TTX is currently done on a boutique scale: a handful of tours—primarily hiking-, biking- or photo-driven—limited to six people per guide from a base at Turner’s recently acquired Sierra Grande Lodge. The 1929-vintage hot springs spa lies between the Ladder and the Armendaris in the proudly kooky town of Truth or Consequences, where shops hawk spiritual crystals and advertise memberships in witches’ covens. At full capacity, the 18-room adobe offers access to about 10,000 acres per guest. By comparison, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, roughly the same size as the two ranches combined, drew 10.7 million visitors last year.
If the idea of a private national park sounds far-fetched, untenable, and somewhat intriguing, please recall that Turner created the 24-7 news cycle by founding CNN way back in 1980. He may have come to television news via the ad side—he took over his deceased father’s billboard business in 1963—but he’s long been known as a strong editorial voice, particularly when it comes to environmental and humanitarian issues, funding expeditions by seminal marine biologist Jacques Cousteau and donating $1 billion to the United Nations to create the United Nations Foundation, focusing on issues of climate change and social welfare. Since 2006, when he left Time Warner—the company that gobbled up Turner Broadcasting System, parent of CNN, and where he was edged out in a very public dispute—he has focused on creating a different kind of legacy for himself. First, Turner concentrated on building a market for bison, the lean grass-raised meat that manages to vault its price gap relative to beef—about twice as much per pound of ground—based on its pitch as less fatty, more omega-3-rich, and distinctly American. Now, he’s endeavoring to do no less than sow environmentalism into the consciousness of the American psyche … one to six eco-travelers at a time.
One bright morning in Truth or Consequences, I board a red Ford Expedition sent from TTX, its front license plate broadcasting its mission well before it reaches a full stop: “Save Everything.” Not save the whales, or the wolves, or the reefs. Gentle bumper-sticker reader, it urges, think bigger: the planet and man.
“That’s Ted,” the driver smiles warmly. “Everything is connected.”
Surveying the high desert of southern New Mexico from the passenger-side perch, I can see that the Camino Real is a relatively young scar in the desert. We stop to take in an older one, a scrubby clearing on the Ladder Ranch strewn with exposed pot shards and stone tools left by the indigenous Mimbres people who inhabited the area about a millennium ago.
“You feel that someone stood here,” says Dan Gallagher, the Expedition’s driver and my affable guide, now hunting around the base of a 30-foot-high rock wall, adorned in Mimbres petroglyphs of wide-eyed rabbits—spooked, no doubt, by the mountain lion drawn nearby—for the alluvial crayon used by the artist.
Like many Turner ranches, the Ladder, purchased in 1992, was devoted to cattle, now supplanted by bison. Four streams flow through the ranch, which abuts the Gila National Forest, toward the Rio Grande, creating a vital wildlife habitat for everything from elk to Montezuma quail in the otherwise bone-dry desert. The topography rolls from high mesas peppered in 100-year-old dwarf juniper down through abrupt rock chasms into stream-cut canyons under cloudless skies unmarred by contrails (the no-fly-zone surrounding nearby White Sands Missile Range underscores preindustrial impressions). Driving, we flush out herds of mule deer from a stream bank, elk browsing on new spring shoots, and male turkeys in puffed mating displays to prove peacocks aren’t the only avian showboats. At a sweeping overlook redundantly named Grand View, Gallagher puts the panorama in perspective, “You can imagine it looking as it did 200 years ago, when Geronimo was here, or close to 1,000 years ago with the Mimbres. We work on scale here.”
The work is a collective term for the many projects attempting to “Save Everything,” including restoring native species from bison down to Bolson tortoises, despite the fact that the latter spend 90 percent of their lives underground. With U.S. Fish & Wildlife, Turner-funded biologists breed Chiricahua leopard frogs and monitor a sort of halfway habitat for captive Mexican wolves that will later be released on public land (to which they are currently restricted).
“Everything that furthers the goals makes me feel good,” says Turner. “Some things are very difficult. Gray wolves are one of them. We have two packs on the Flying D Ranch in Montana. We’ve had them for 20 years. They migrated from Yellowstone Park, where they were reintroduced, but there’s a lot of ranchers who don’t like wolves because they do eat cattle occasionally—enough to get some people upset. In some instances, you have to make a little bit of a personal sacrifice to do this if you’re doing it as authentically as possible, which is what we’re trying to do.”
As the Ladder is about a wolf pack shy of a holistic ecosystem, stewards balance wild populations of turkey, deer, and elk with commercial hunts, which help make the property economically sustainable. “The beauty of the place is that it has been closed for so long,” says Ladder Ranch manager Steve Dobrott, a former U.S. Fish & Wildlife biologist charged with juggling herds, hunts, habitat restoration, and now ecotourism. “Opening it introduces outside influences. If nesting sites of neotropical birds, for instance, are disturbed by hikers, we’ll have to change those routes. We want to expose visitors in a way that won’t threaten the projects.”
Introducing outsiders requires, among other things, that I trade in my boots for a pair of bleach-treated Keen hiking sandals in the hushed canyons around Palomas Creek to avoid introducing fungus to the vulnerable Chiricahua leopard frog habitat. Gallagher later disinfects the Expedition’s tires before fording a shallow stream. Across it, a masticating herd of 80 or so free-ranging bison stare us down with welling eyes and panic-inducing size. “It’s easy to get out and talk about the environment,” Gallagher whispers as we pass, “because we’re standing in one that’s intact, from tiny insects to big mammals like elk and bison. You don’t feel missing parts of the chain.”
Though they are only about 30 miles apart, the muscular Armendaris couldn’t be more different from the verdant Ladder. In the mountains, fossilized walls reveal an ancient seabed, and granite knobs bubble up like flash-frozen magma. Cliffs of Pennsylvania limestone create perfect purchase for pensive desert bighorn sheep, which were removed from the state’s endangered species list in 2011 after 37 of the animals, introduced to the ranch in 1995, bred to over 250. From a Cretaceous dinosaur dig that exhumed a sauropod femur to a Civil War battle site, the Armendaris captures an eon-spanning stretch of history, geologic and frontier.
Its most distinct residents, the African antelope, known as the oryx, are not native. They wandered over from the neighboring missile grounds where they were introduced as quarry in 1969. Tolerant of the exotic trespassers with their forking headgear and black masks, Turner draws the line at introducing non-natives.
“When I bought land in Argentina, my first thought was to send some bison, then I realized they weren’t there naturally, and I wouldn’t bring them down. I bet you don’t know guanacos, do you? Now we’re encouraging guanacos. They are the area’s natural animals, a member of the llama family, and they fill the niche that was filled by the bison. There were never bison in South America, nor guanacos in North America. So there.”
Back here, on the Armendaris, giving the rattlesnake a wide berth atop the Fra Cristobal Mountains, I feel gratitude to first-name-basis-Ted for conserving the place, and my own good luck to be in it. Anyone with as little as $50 can do the same, and the ROI on experience—virtually alone in a vast, as-pristine-as-possible wilderness—makes it the eco-deal of the century. Treading the line between development and conservation, TTX aims to create a few hiking routes, but not use them so much as to leave worn paths and to keep the prices on excursions relatively low in order to broadly appeal, while relying on those who can pay $6,000 for a night at Turner’s own Ladder Ranch house,a Western-art-filled four-bedroom featuring bison-hide rugs and a private chef, to support the initiative.
“I have a passion for humanity too, for the great indoors,” Turner says. “I’ve got nice houses we’re going to share with people who want to see what living on a ranch is like, or at least visiting one.”
A back-of-the-napkin calculation suggests he’ll need a lot of one-percenters seeking the privacy that only a half-million buffering acres can supply to make TTX viable. In this area, its lodging capacity currently stands at the one 18-room inn and the ranch house, with a few other small non-Turner-owned hotels in Truth or Consequences that stand to benefit from the overflow. “The expansion of Ted Turner Expeditions to other properties, as well as adding lodging to our existing locations, is a definite possibility,” he admits. “At the same time, we need to balance expansion with the well-being of these lands and the wildlife on them. It is this balance that is at the essence of Ted Turner Expeditions.”
By the time I’ve climbed to the top of Fra Cristobal, found (and left) several Mimbres pot shards at the Ladder Ranch, and seen, generally, what Geronimo saw, I think, “Okay, I want to save everything, too.” But what if I actually had the means? Would I devote them to elusive Bolson tortoises and tinyChiricahua leopard frogs? Would I take the epic view, knowing an investment in preserving a watershed will pay off in some reptile’s distant-future survival rather than something more instantly gratifying like kudzu eradication? It’s a relatively egoless move to drop out of the day-to-day headlines—either making them or covering them—and to think not just globally but millennially, to invest beyond one’s life expectancy. To think you can save everything.... Well, maybe that takes ego, but the magnanimous strain, and in the service of a legacy poised to outlast the modern news cycle.