Ted Turner has always been — for better and for worse — a head turner. He revolutionized media with the first cable news station, CNN. He gave a cool billion to the United Nations. He won the America’s Cup. He married Jane Fonda. He bought the Atlanta Braves. He earned the moniker “Mouth of the South” for calling Ash Wednesday observers “Jesus freaks,” pro-lifers “bozos,” and Christianity “a religion for losers.”

Turner has been equally brazen when it comes to the environment. He bought up some 2 million acres of land in Western and Plains states, making him the nation’s biggest individual landowner, and put much of it under a conservation easement. He launched a personal crusade to restore America’s bison and prairie-dog populations. He funded a controversial project to wipe out non-native fish in a stream on his Montana ranch and re-introduce endangered native westslope cutthroat trout.

Turner, now 70, no longer owns CNN and has lost a fair bit of his fortune in recent years, but that hasn’t curbed his ambitions. In October, he announced a U.N.-backed project to establish a global gold standard for environmentally sustainable and culturally sensitive tourism. In November, he published his memoir, Call Me Ted: The Life and Times of Ted Turner, chronicling his superlative feats as a businessman and philanthropist. Just after the election, in the pages of The Washington Post, he called on President-elect Barack Obama to make climate-change solutions his top priority and “remake the vast systems that power the nation and the world.”

I phoned up Turner recently at his Atlanta office to ask about his push for sustainable tourism, his advice for Obama, and his soft spot for prairie dogs.


 

Hi, Mr. Turner.

Call Me Ted, by Ted Turner and Bill Burke.

You can call me Ted.

Is that a book plug, or are you just being friendly?

Yes, it’s a book plug. That’s the way I do things.

Tell me about the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria that you announced in Barcelona recently. Why is this an important benchmark?

The United Nations is very concerned about the global environment, and protecting World Heritage Sites is particularly important. There’s a lot of pressure on places like the Galapagos Islands, and it was really necessary to have some tourism standards so that these sensitive areas don’t get trashed.

How will the standards affect tourists and tourism?

From what I’ve heard and what I’ve read, they’re not difficult to be in compliance with. These are good, common-sense standards that the people in the tourist industry have pretty much endorsed close to 100 percent. They want to protect these sites too because it’s their livelihood and they care about it. It’s a win-win situation for everybody.

You’ve said that “sustainability is just like the old business adage, ‘You don’t encroach on the principal, you live off the interest.'” Can you explain that adage a bit further, and how it relates to sustainability?

Those words you just said are pretty self-explanatory.

A top EPA official once told me she believes that Adam Smith’s invisible hand has a green thumb — that environmental protection and free-market forces are inherently compatible. As an avid capitalist and devout environmentalist, do you agree?

I’d like to think so, but it really depends. I don’t think that’s universally true, but it’s more true now than it was even a year ago because more and more corporations are turning green. Even News Corp. — Rupert Murdoch came out a few months ago saying that he was going to take News Corp. green. Of course Wal-Mart has gone very green and so has General Electric. It’s certainly an encouraging trend. If we destroy the environment, we’re going to destroy ourselves.

You’re a big fan of clean energy. What do you think are the most promising low-carbon technologies on the horizon?

I think it’s going to take a number of different technologies. The two that I think have the greatest potential at this point with the technology where it is today are solar and wind. But I also want to see more research done into geothermal because there’s a virtually unlimited supply of heat beneath the surface of the Earth that can be tapped. We just need to figure out how to get down to it economically enough to make it feasible. There are others like tidal energy that are very promising too.

Are there clean-energy companies you’re placing bets on?

I have a multi-million-dollar investment in First Solar.

In a Washington Post piece, you proposed that President-elect Obama establish a National Energy Council in the White House. What would it do?

We’re heavily subsidizing the fossil-fuel industry, which needs to be phased out. The people who use fossil fuel should pay the full cost of it. What tax breaks and incentives there are should go for the new renewable, locally produced energy that creates jobs here in the United States. That keeps the money in our own economy, because we’re just bankrupting ourselves, as Boone Pickens says, by spending three-quarters of a trillion dollars a year importing foreign oil.

We’ve got to have a new digital [electrical] grid that goes from coast to coast and border to border to move this new energy around. The best place to build solar panels is in the Southwest — Arizona, New Mexico, Southern California, and southern Nevada — but we’ve got to move it all the way across the country to New York and Boston. And then the best place for wind power, and where it’s the least disruptive, is out on the Great Plains, and we’ve got to be able to move that electricity generated from wind power to the major population centers as well. And we need a new grid anyway; the grid we have now is over 100 years old, and it’s decrepit.

Do you want to see mandatory greenhouse-gas restrictions in this country?

I would like to see them. I think the situation with global climate change is a life-or-death issue for us that we have to get on right away. Even if global warming [science] is wrong for some reason, at least we get clean air out of it. And [a clean-energy economy] will employ millions. All the people employed who are going to be let go when the auto industry goes bankrupt will be able to find good, high-paying jobs building windmills. We’ll be moving from subsidizing a dying smokestack industry to going to clean, renewable electrical power, locally produced. It will be terrific for our economy.

But I think it’s going to be very difficult to do. I am concerned that we won’t do the right thing here, especially being distracted by this unfortunate downturn in the economy. I just don’t want us to take our eye off this ball, because it’s really a matter of human survival.

What do you think is the single biggest environmental problem after climate change?

Cutting down the rainforest. We’re drawing on our environmental capital, and we do so at our peril because if the environment goes, we go.

You’re the largest individual landowner in America. Tell me why you love the land and how you manage it.

I bought most of that land to increase the size of my bison herd. One of the things I want to do is bring back the bison. Prairie dogs too. I’ve got 45,000 bison, and I needed a lot of land for them to live on. The same with the prairie dogs — I’ve got 250,000 prairie dogs now, approximately. Just a few years back, I only had a remnant population of them because genocide is being brought against the prairie dogs by the ranchers. They should be on the endangered species list, but they’re still being classified as vermin and being slaughtered by poisoning, and shooting, and being mowed down.

Why did you decide to focus on bison and prairie dogs?

Because they’re quintessential icons of America on the Great Plains. Along with them also are antelope, meadowlarks, rattlesnakes, and burrowing owls. There’s a whole prairie ecosystem out here that has been largely destroyed by our cattle-ranching. By getting the bison back and giving all these little critters a place to live, we’re bringing it back and maintaining it.

Your first word as a baby was “pretty,” and it popped out when you saw a butterfly. What drew you to nature as a kid?

I was just born with a fascination for nature. As soon as I was able to look at and read books about nature, I did. I was fascinated by snakes and lizards and bugs and spiders and butterflies, and also the flowers and the plants and the trees.

What about now? What are your favorite natural places?

My favorite place: I have just one.

What’s that?

Planet Earth. The whole place. I’ve been from the Arctic to the rainforest to the equator to the desert. I’ve been in over 70 countries. I love this world. I love the United Nations. I want to see humanity succeed, and learn to live in peace and harmony with the environment and each other.

Do you think we will?

Either we will or we’re going to end up extinct. We’ve got to get rid of nuclear weapons. We’ve got to stop global warming. We’ve got to preserve the environment. We’ve got to eliminate poverty. We’ve got to stabilize the population with voluntary family planning. Half of the women in the world don’t have equal rights to men and those are the most screwed-up parts of the world. Millions of women every year are still being mutilated by clitorectomies — talk about brutality! There are a lot of things to be discouraged about. On the other hand, there’s a lot to be encouraged about, too.

So what we’ve got to do is stop doing dumb things and start doing smart things. If we do that, we’ll be fine. And if we go extinct, we deserved it.