'Last Stand' author Todd Wilkinson discusses Ted Turner's efforts to help the environment
Wilkinson's book 'Last Stand' details Ted Turner's second act as an ardent environmentalist.
Think of Ted Turner, if you dare. If you're of a certain age, you may recall a gloriously bombastic character who created CNN, married (and divorced) Jane Fonda, owned a baseball team, and made sure everybody knew about all of it.
And then the "Mouth of the South" reinvented himself.
Maybe you missed the memo on that last part? Join the club. The media mogul's second act, as an environmentalist to beat all environmentalists, isn't common knowledge. But Turner's transformation to "ecocapitalist" is an epic tale, says Montana journalist Todd Wilkinson. He tells the story in his new book "Last Stand: Ted Turner's Quest to Save a Troubled Planet."
In an interview, Wilkinson, a Christian Science Monitor correspondent who specializes in the environment, talked about how Turner is protecting the land, coming to terms with his own complicated past, and creating a legacy.
Q: What is Turner doing to help the land and the animals that live on it?
A: This whole nature experiment, the notion of him as a modern Noah using his land to protect endangered species, it's not some sort of trope. It's real.
When he arrived at his flagship ranch, the Flying D Ranch outside Bozeman, Montana, it was trampled and overrun by too many cattle. The river waters were murky, and there wasn't a lot of grass left for wildlife. Twenty-five years later, 5,000 buffalo roam across the ranch, the grasslands are in good shape, water is flowing in streams, and there's a vibrant trout population.
Today, you can find every major mammal species that existed at the end of the Pleistocene Era on his land: bison, pronghorn elk, mule deer, whitetailed deer, mountain lions and the largest wolf pack known to exist in the lower 48 states.
Q: What's behind Turner's interest in the environment?
A: Jane Fonda told me that Ted had a very troubled childhood and a dysfunctional relationship with his father, who committed suicide when Ted was 24 years old.
Jane Fonda described him, and Ted Turner confirms this, as a person who finds solace in nature. It's always given him comfort to try to heal nature. It's an effort to save himself.
Q: What are the keys to his success?
A: His sets his sights high. His father warned him: Don't set your goals so low that you can achieve them in your own lifetime.
For example, one goal he has is to eradicate all nuclear weapons from the planet except for maybe a few. He's brought people in on this like Sam Nunn, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz.
The skill that stands out is his ability to pick great people to help implement his vision, whether it was at TBS and CNN, or hiring Bobby Cox to manage the Atlanta Braves, or picking Senator Wirth to lead the United Nations Foundation. He tells them that "we need to do things that have never been done before."
Q: He's known as a successful but egotistical blowhard. These kinds of people can be easy to love but hard to like. Has his style changed over time?
A: Anybody who has seen him realizes that he has a big ego, and huge expectations come with that.
On the other hand, you have this guy who will be 75 years old this year and, primarily at the prodding of Jane Fonda, sees a therapist. He talks about these issues he has. He fits the classic sort of archetype of the overachiever, the kid who comes with a lack of self-esteem based on dysfunctional relationships early in his life, and he sets out to prove to the world he's worthy.
Over the 20 years that I've had this ongoing conversation with him, he's mellowed as he's gotten older. He's become more thoughtful, less bellicose. The edge has been taken off on the ego.
Q: What have you learned about him on an emotional level?
A: He is not a saint, and he is not petitioning for sainthood. He knows his deep flaws.
Q: Do you like the guy?
A: When I first met him, I wasn't that fond of him. I was skeptical because he wasn't the most pleasant guy.
But over time, as he's opened himself up to me and really exposed his vulnerabilities, we came to this level of trust. I never set out to become a pal of Ted Turner, but we've reached the point where we can have a pretty intense and insightful discussion.
Q: What do you think his legacy is in terms of media?
A: It will be in television, but it doesn't lie just with CNN. It's what it represented: 24-hour news, accessible whenever you want it, and the technology revolution that came with it. That was the nascent spark for this information age we live in today.
Rather than it being tied into CNN as a brand, it was the concept of foreseeing that there was an appetite for society – for good or bad – to be plugged in.
Q: What's his main message to the world about nature and the land?
A: He rejects this widespread notion that flows out of Wall Street which says that if you're going to be economically prosperous, it has to come at the expense of the environment. He dismisses "ecology vs. economy" as a false dichotomy.
He says we're looking at it the wrong way: You have to do things that are environmentally sustainable, although they won't pay for themselves.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.