GALLATIN GATEWAY, MONT. — By nearly any aesthetic standard, the Flying D Ranch in Montana possesses all the attributes of a national park.
Among snowcapped mountains that rake the sky, two major rivers, and miles of undulating prairie, roam a rare concentration of animals, including grizzlies, gray wolves, eagles, and mountain lions.
But the Flying D lays claim to something that even Yellowstone, its southern neighbor, cannot: a benefactor in the largest private US landowner, Ted Turner. He's made his ranch the flagship of a bold but controversial effort to aid wildlife conservation, trying to show that making a profit and protecting the web of life aren't mutually exclusive.
While Mr. Turner's means and eccentricities set him apart, he is among a growing number of modern Noahs attempting to use their own land as arks for wildlife protection.
In many cases, this quiet movement has been as much a product of dissatisfaction with the way government works as it is an expression of personal magnanimity, experts say. But it is not without controversy. Some ranchers don't like the idea of having predators live just up the road from their cattle. And some landowners are afraid that if they act, they will inadvertantly invite unwanted government attention.
"The efforts being undertaken by Ted Turner and his staff are some of the most exciting work being done in conservation," says Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation. "He has said private landowners should take a lead role in endangered species conservation and put his own money behind it. But numerous other heroes are making a difference, too."
By Turner's estimate, he already has invested $500 million into his ranches in nine states, not to mention tens of millions of dollars annually dispersed to support conservation projects.
What Turner has accomplished in a glare of media attention, property owners using groups like The Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited have done largely out of the spotlight.
By getting property owners to sign "conservation easements" on their land, guaranteeing that no major development will occur in the future, the Conservancy has protected 1.3 million acres across the US.
"There are people out there who can go further faster and do more for biodiversity through personal action and nonformal chats with their neighbors than government agencies or conservation professionals could ever accomplish on the ground," says Kelly Cash of the Nature Conservancy.
Six years ago, ranchers Anna and Matt Magoffin found a breeding population of dwindling Chiricahua leopard frogs in one of their cattle troughs outside Douglas, Ariz.
When a summer drought set in, they hauled water to the remote tank to keep the amphibians alive. After obtaining a state permit to collect egg clusters, they recruited high school students to help propagate more frogs in classroom laboratories, with the idea that they would be transplanted back onto local ranchlands.
But as the government moves toward placing the frog on the endangered species list, the homespun recovery effort has been put on hold.
"The worst thing about working with endangered species is that the government has treated some property owners as an adversary instead of as an ally," says Mrs. Magoffin. "So much public money has been needlessly spent in court battles rather than in the field, where it would have made a difference."
That distrust of Washington has stymied conservation efforts elsewhere. In south Texas - a state where 97 percent of the land is privately owned - the Peregrine Fund tried to recruit ranchers to help restore the Aplomado falcon.
"Not a single landowner we approached expressed an interest in helping to restore a part of the nation's wildlife heritage," says raptor biologist Pete Jenny. "At the same time, they voiced concern about what the economic consequences might be to have an endangered species on their property. They didn't want the government coming in and telling them what to do, but more than that, they didn't want anything jeopardizing their ability to pay for their kids to go to college."
Such concern is one reason Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and the US Fish and Wildlife Service created the "safe harbor" program, which enables landowners to save animals now and not fear heavy-handed federal intervention later.
Turner has welcomed the recolonization of grizzlies and wolves on his 120,000-acre Flying D Ranch in Montana, and he's told the Fish and Wildlife Service he is interested in restoring those animals to his 155,000-acre Ladder Ranch in the southern Rockies.
"We're not just interested in planting willows along stream banks so it will improve the fly fishing," says Mike Phillips, a Turner adviser who helped coordinate the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. "Ted and Beau [Turner] and the rest of the team here see our actions as being connected to the health of larger ecosystems."
Among Turner's other projects:
*His Avalon Plantation in northern Florida was used as a safe haven for red-cockaded woodpeckers, and his Spikebox Ranch in Nebraska has closely managed bison so that an endangered plant, the blowout penstamon, can grow again.
*He's offered his Armendaris Ranch in New Mexico to serve as a site for reintroduction of bighorn sheep and California condors.
*He has instructed his advisers to find a place suitable for a colony of prairie dogs - an animal viewed as vermin in most corners of the West - which, in turn, would aid efforts to rescue black-footed ferrets and other predators.
So far, large predators have not posed a major threat to his Montana bison herd. But observers say the real test will come if bruins and lobos start eating into his profits.
"Not everyone can be a Ted Turner," Mr. France says, "but what Ted Turner has shown is that you don't have to be if you want to make a difference."
IN the northeastern corner of Indiana, farmer Wayne Cosper has fought the dredging of Fish Creek because of its implications for harming an endangered creature he didn't even know existed before: the pearly white, cats-paw mussel.
Mr. Cosper, who has been farming for more than 50 years, is also concerned about the quality of water that eventually reaches residents of Fort Wayne miles downstream. Over the past few decades, he and his wife have planted 30,000 trees and shrubs and built half a dozen wetlands.
"I've realized that you don't have to make every nickel you can," he says. "There are other generations coming up that will need some green space and the animals that inhabit it." The greatest monument to the land, he says, is the condition it's left in when he's gone.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society