Riding the Wild Bison
Ted Turner can’t be contained, not even by the Packards.
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Ted Turner moves in and out of the auditorium at the Monterey Bay Aquarium flanked by a bevy of security guards, a foursome of earnest, handsome young men wearing suits and earpieces, men who seem less likely to kill you than to cause serious pain if you try to get too close to The Man.
Turns out, there was at least one person in the Aquarium’s auditorium last Friday who needed that security more than Turner. Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin, whose great reporting love, ironically, is sharks, could not contain Turner during what was supposed to have been a 30 minute, give-and-take interview at the Aquarium’s Sustainable Foods Institute.
The man ran her over. As one blogger put it, moderating Ted is about as easy as domesticating a bison. But it made for a great and wild 30-minute ride for the audience. A multi-millionaire since his mid-20s, when after his father’s suicide he took over his father’s successful billboard business, and a billionaire several times over not too long after that, age and money have only enhanced traits that likely were hardwired into Turner’s DNA, particularly the ability to say and do whatever he pleases.
In no real order (because there was literally no real order), Turner riffed on bison (loves them), cows (hates them), fishing with Castro (“Communists like to fish and hunt too,” he says), birth control (more of it for everyone), women’s rights (huge champion of them), war (not a fan) and conservation (huge fan).
It’s that first item (the bison) and the last (conservation) that made Turner the perfect guest for a sustainability forum. The 72-year-old Turner can easily be credited with saving and revitalizing the American bison population. His herd grew with his CNN: As the original cable news network gained gravitas, audience and profits, Turner bought more land and more bison.
He started with three, and ended up with 50,000, spread around the 2.1 million acres of land he owns. And they’re by no means pets or for show; his herds provide much of the product he serves at his Ted’s Montana Grill, a national chain of casual-dining, cowboy-themed eateries serving bison nachos, bison meatloaf, bison pot roast, BBQ bison short ribs… you get the picture. The man created the bison market.
“I didn’t start out with any thought of going into it for profit. It was a hobby, like getting a dog,” Turner says. “I like bison because when I was a little boy, I loved the natural world, and the bison was the largest land animal in North America.”
When the Europeans landed here, there were about 30 million bison. By the time they finished conquering, there were fewer than 200. “That completely broke my heart as a little boy,” Turner says. “They killed them and moved them out because they are a wild animal.”
Killing is something clearly always on Turner’s mind. Over the course of his life, he’s given more than $1 billion to a variety of foundations, including the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the United Nations Foundation and the Turner Endangered Species Fund. He talks bitterly of how war spending has broken the U.S. economy, and of how much we flat out seem to love it.
“We’re broke now. We spent so much on wars… If we’re not bombing someone, we’re not happy,” he says. “I bet there’s not one person in this room that wants to see people bombed. How many people want to kill and maim other people? It’s criminal, for Christ’s sake.”
Also criminal, he says, is eschewing sustainability at the expense of comfort. In one of many comic moments, Turner says he often sits in his office in the dark, turning on the lights only when absolutely necessary.
“Sustainability is everyone’s business,” Turner says. “Overfishing? That’s crazy. That’s not sustainable. We’re in a place where they had a fabulous herring fishery, they over-fished and it collapsed, and now where there were canneries there are gift shops.”
What keeps Turner up at night? How to feed an already starving population sustainably, and how to keep the natural world from collapsing entirely.
“There’s already a billion people in the world going to bed hungry, and what really concerns me is if we go to 8 or 9 billion,” he says. “What do you do about it? A lot of things, on a whole global basis.”
Those things, he says, center almost entirely on women’s rights. Ensuring access to birth control (“I don’t like abortions, who does? But with birth control you don’t need abortions”) would help with population control. Educating women (“In the Arab world, women are treated like dogs, and these are people we’re giving billions to”) would lead to equal rights and equal pay for equal jobs.
And, he adds, it would cost a fraction of a single bomb.
MARY DUAN is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at email@example.com