Book Review: Turner bio an intimate look at a very large life

Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet, by Todd Wilkinson, 2013. Lyons Press, 371 pages, $26.95

There are a lot of big names in this book besides Turner’s. Todd Wilkinson has revealing conversations with Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Al Gore, Kofi Annan and Jane Fonda, among others.

But it was Mike Phillips, who lives in Bozeman, who said something about Turner that best encapsulates the portrait that Wilkinson draws here. As a government biologist, Phillips supervised the reintroduction of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park and he has overseen the Turner Endangered Species Fund since its creation in 1997.

Last Stand“He wants to leave things better than he found them,” Phillips said. “He has done more for humanity with an environmental focus than any other person, living or dead. Is his ego in play? Sure it is.”

“More than any other person living or dead.” That’s a hell of a claim. But read this book before you attempt to challenge it. Everyone knows what Turner has done for the bison, but Wilkinson informs us that he has helped restore and preserve hundreds of other species, too, ranging from Tasmanian devils and Russian cranes to westslope cutthroat trout and wild Pacific salmon. At Turner’s Flying D ranch outside of Bozeman, Wilkinson says, “every major mammal known to exist in the Rockies at the time of Leif Ericson’s arrival in Canada could now be found.”

Turner is also alive to the connections between the environment and international stability. That’s why he pledged $1 billion to the UN Foundation and $250 million to the Nuclear Threat Initiative. And that is why he continued to make good on his pledges even after the AOL-Time Warner merger turned into a gigantic debacle and cost Turner billions.

Then there is the Turner Foundation, to which he pledged $50 million a year. In the back of this book, there is a 16-page listing, in three columns of small type, of the hundreds of organizations and institutions that have benefited from the fund.

What about Phillips’ other point, that Turner’s ego is at play in this vast tide of philanthropy? That is no doubt true as well, but so what? Turner approaches the problems of humanity with the same drive that helped build his fortune, and if someone with a small ego has built a similar fortune, I would like to know that person’s name. And if it’s egotistical to pledge most of your fortune to making the world a better place, we could probably use more egotists.

Turner is far from being a flawless man. Turner acknowledges and Wilkinson explores all manner of public and private flaws, but there’s not a hint of tabloid sensationalism in the account. Turner says in the foreword that he developed a deep trust in Wilkinson, “a respected old-school journalist,” and opened up to him partly because he was curious to see where it would all lead. The result, despite those flaws, is a portrait that is almost relentlessly favorable. And it is so because the people who know Turner best — even Jane Fonda, his most famous ex — seem genuinely to like and respect him.

Fortunately for the reader, there is one villain in the book to relieve what would have been the tedium of a good man doing good work. Our villain also illustrates the difference between a plutocrat who feeds his ego by nurturing the environment and another who does so by plundering it. The bad man is Tim Blixseth, the real estate sharp who parlayed a relatively small stake into a sizable pile of loot, which he used to develop the Yellowstone Club.

This, of course, was the ultra-exclusive gated community near Big Sky. It was a giant gash on the landscape, like a mirror image of Turner’s Flying D ranch on the other side of the Spanish Peaks. Blixseth’s empire was a habitat-fragmenting development that continues to inflict great damage on wolves, elk, grizzly bears and other animals.

The monument to Blixseth’s ego was supposed to have been one of the most expensive residences ever sold in the United States – a 53,000-square-foot log mansion valued at $155 million. The house was never built and Blixseth’s empire went bust. He is still entangled in a bankruptcy that is bound up in an ugly feud with his ex-wife. Give me Turner’s method of feeding his ego any day.

More than anything, this book is an exploration of the idea that environmentalism and conservation can co-exist with free-market capitalism. Turner just happens to practice a bigger-picture capitalism. He likes to talk of the “triple bottom line,” which means that business decisions must take into account economic profit, ecological gains and benefits to local and regional communities. Ignoring any one of those factors, Turner believes, is ultimately stupid.

Turner’s huge land holdings make it possible for him to pioneer ecological initiatives on a scale that would normally be impossible without government involvement. In the same way, his global connections and financial independence seem to put his politics beyond the reach of the usual partisan labels and the squalid infighting of Washington, D.C.

One of Turner’s more interesting ideas, partly borrowed from Nelson Mandela, was to convert the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea into an ecological preserve, a “peace park.” Because the DMZ, bristling with armaments along all its borders, has been empty of human beings for 60 years, it has become, in Wilkinson’s words, “a quiet oasis for some of the rarest wild creatures in crowded East Asia.”

In Washington, this sort of thing, this peace park in the middle of a cold war-zone, is laughed at. But as Jimmy Carter told Turner, in Wilkinson’s paraphrase: “Ignore partisan demagogues who live in the past; persevere; champion a different model of engagement.”

That independence also means taking stands that might appall some of Turner’s progressive friends. He wants to move toward clean energy, but he believes in the meantime that some nuclear power is inevitable. And in typical Turner fashion, a partial solution to one problem branches out to encompass other solutions.

He has worked closely with former Sen. Sam Nunn, head of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, to convert uranium and plutonium from old Soviet weapons to fuel for American nuclear plants. As Nunn says, “Today, roughly speaking, one out of every ten light bulbs in America is powered by material that twenty years ago was in Soviet missiles pointed at us and our friends.”

This book is full of such revealing anecdotes. My favorite might be that Turner once told a Polack joke to Pope John Paul II. Apparently the pope was so insulted that Turner felt compelled to apologize. It is typical of Turner that even his faux pas are world-class. My only complaint, if I were forced to register one, is that Wilkinson didn’t share the joke.

 

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