Turner becomes largest private landowner in US

Ted Turner gave the world CNN, but the legacy he intends to leave America is not the incessant drumbeat of television news, but millions of acres of wide-open spaces teeming with wildlife and protected endangered species.

Formerly known as the Mouth from the South, the patriarch of cable news is no longer in the media business, having left Time Warner in 2003. Today, he is America's biggest conservationist as well as its largest private landowner.

Like many American outdoorsmen he is both a committed hunter and environmentalist, except that he has managed to turn his passion into a profit-making business.

Over the past few years, Ted Turner has used his $2.3bn (1.1bn) wealth to create wildlife sanctuaries across many of the two million acres he owns in 12 states as well as in the southern tip of the Americas, Patagonia.

His mostly western lands are filled with bison, native cut-throat trout and cougars in habitat that he manages in an environmentally sensitive way. Hunters and fishermen pay big fees to bag elk, deer and catch and release rare species of trout, which he has brought back from the brink of extinction. His Nebraska ranches are home to America's largest herd of buffalo, some 50,000 strong, which supply his restaurant chain, Ted's Montana Grill, with bison burgers.

The Turner land grab has, however, generated suspicion among ranchers who are complaining that this is another land grab by a rich liberal environmentalist, which is putting them out of business.

But Turner says he is more than a philanthropist, and tries to make money from all his ventures. His Vermejo Ranch in northern New Mexico was once a hideaway for Hollywood celebrities. These days it is a hunting preserve for the wealthy who come to bag elk, deer, antelope and Merriman turkeys. But he is also mining for propane natural gas from the immense coal reserves beneath the ranch in an environmentally sensitive way, he says.

In the Nebraska Sandhills region, the Turner organisation recently outbid 19 local ranchers to pick up another 26,300 acres of prime ranch land for nearly $10m. The ranch had been in the same family for more than 100 years and is adjacent to a 100,000-acre spread he bought in 1995. According to the general manager, Russ Miller, the Nebraska spread was bought because it offered good grass and good water, despite a persistent drought in recent years.

"We're resilient, the bison are resilient and the Sandhills are resilient," Mr Miller said. Turner paid $17.78m for a 58,000-acre ranch in the Sandhills in 2005 and bought a 45,000-acre ranch in Sheridan County in 1998.

Mike Phillips, executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, a Turner spin-off, says his boss is just a "doggone serious rancher," dedicated to preserving the environment.

Along with his land-buying, Turner has given more than $1.5bn to charity, including the United Nations Foundation, and an initiative aimed at ridding the world of nuclear weapons. The Turner organisation is now in discussions with the World Wildlife Fund and the World Conservation Union about conserving bison.

Both groups are hoping to develop a huge park where bison could once again roam the Great Plains freely. Reports of Turner's buying spree like the Associated Press account of his Nebraska purchase have generated numerous conspiracy theories. One is that he is scheming with the United Nations to create a vast wildlife refuge that would put Nebraska ranchers and farmers out of business.

But Turner spokesmen insist that the driving force behind his land purchases is simply the desire to make money. The Vermejo Ranch offers week-long elk hunting excursions at $12,000 a pop. And there are now more than 51 Ted's Montana Grill restaurants across the country serving the famous bison burgers.

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