By Bob Ferris
I have been in and around the conservation aspects of media mogul Ted Turner’s operations for nearly two decades and through that thought that I had a pretty good idea who Ted is and the vision and scope of his efforts to re-wild the West and change the world. After reading Todd Wilkinson’s insightful biography of Turner entitled “Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet” I found that I knew a lot less than I thought.
I will say upfront that Todd Wilkinson, the book’s author, is my friend. Moreover, many of the folks who work for Turner on his ranches or in his conservation efforts are too. I will also say that I just toured with Todd for more than 1000 miles promoting the paperback version of Last Stand and at the same time forwarding the notion of eco-capitalism, mechanisms for world peace, the end of female genital mutilation and pathways for re-wildling the West. Guilty as charged. In point of fact, it would have been hard for me to work in this field as long as I have without bumping into these efforts.
So did I like the book? Yes, for many reasons. But let’s start with the personal insights that came out of Wilkinson’s nearly unfettered access over two decades which often reveal as much about Turner as they do about ourselves and our own psychic baggage. For instance, those of us of certain age grew up trying to please parents who never seemed satisfied with our achievements or all that accepting of our natural rebelliousness. And while rejection and castigation are great motivators leading frequently to innovation and performance in those strong enough to bear them, they come at a price. Wilkinson’s sensitive documentation of Ted’s early life and young adulthood give us an important glimpse of the devils that drive Turner as well as a better understanding—even empathy—for the less embraceable elements of Mr. Turner’s public and private behaviors. The child—as Wordsworth once said—is absolutely the father of the man.
Wilkinson spends time also explaining the manifestations of this drive in terms of iconic actions such as the building of the family’s billboard company, founding of CNN, and winning the America’s Cup. These are indeed remarkable events that grant Turner a legitimate place in the land of super-achievers who measure themselves in billions, but do not grant the book or story special stature beyond a dozen others we see littering the discount tables. What makes Turner’s story and Wilkinson’s telling special is the narrative of Turner’s transformation from simple capitalist to eco-capitalist as well as an international actor applying his childhood-forged determination towards solving some of the world’s most Gordian knots.
It is this reinvention of self that Turner experiences and Wilkinson documents that makes him a truly noteworthy figure and the book a compelling read. Simultaneously catalyzed by the natural qualities of the lands he acquired with growing wealth; his close relationship with explorer and ocean advocate Jacques Cousteau; and his marriage to Jane Fonda, Ted successfully changed the direction and thrust of his life in meaningful ways.
That is not to say that Ted became a saint as many of the warts accumulated during his early years remain, but it would be very difficult to argue that the man who once plastered “Who is John Galt” on hundreds of billboards and was known as the “mouth of the South,” is wholly recognizable in the quieter man walking his horse in parallel to his bison herd on the Flying D ranch and working to put his two million acres in a trust to keep their natural as well as their economic values intact and functioning.
And while Turner’s transformation and achievements in conservation are important and make for good reading, his actions in the international arena indicate both a broader impact and that his transformation continues. Wilkinson understands the importance of this thread as he covers the actions of the various Turner organizations as well as the “dream team” of players like Tim Wirth, Sam Nunn and Mike Finley that Ted has enlisted in forwarding his efforts to help the United Nations, deal with nuclear threats and use borderland parks and their wildlife as icebreakers to the much more difficult discussions of peace between opposing countries.
Last Stand is inspirational and informative to all. Ted’s story of change and achievement gives us hope on a challenging landscape where many are saying we should jump directly into despair. If this young boy who once carried Buffalo-head nickels in his pocket for inspiration can radically change, perhaps we can find the needed vision and inspiration within ourselves to save this troubled planet.
Interested in this book and helping Cascadia Wildlands? For the months of November and December 2014 any donor who makes a contribution of $100.00 or more to Cascadia Wildlands will be eligible to receive a free copy of “Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet” complements of the author Todd Wilkinson.