Billionaire media mogul, philanthropist and conservationist Ted Turner is opening a select number of his vast property holdings to the public, offering people the opportunity to enjoy what amounts to their own private national park and experience what is akin to an African safari on American soil.
Ted Turner Expeditions is an eco-luxury affair without the attitude or ostentation. It’s a snippet of life as Ted Turner leads it: grand, nature-oriented, active—and with a purpose.
Sure there is hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, hot springs bathing, migration awing, bird watching, art tours and helicopter tours. The magic kernel of consumption on these southwestern safaris, however, lies in the majestic beauty Turner is holding out for the world to see. It’s the Continental Divide rolling flat along the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts, scattered with scrub brush and sand-soaked plains slimming upon the face of rust-colored buttes and ranges of mountains overtaking one another in a competition of peaks rising out of the distance and carving stark silhouettes against the big, blue New Mexico sky. Here, Turner’s Armendaris and Ladder ranches sit near each other. To the north is the Vermejo Park Ranch, which is so large it also creeps into Colorado.
Turner is the second-largest private landowner in the U.S. (Liberty Media’s John Malone ranks first.) All told, Turner properties equal some 2 million acres, or an area that is bigger than the state of Rhode Island. Trying to describe just how vast the ranches extend is difficult. On the two-hour drive to the town of Truth or Consequences, N.M., from Albuquerque, a mountain range appears in the distance. Jeff Mokotoff, vice president and chief administrative officer of Ted Turner Expeditions, points to it and says that’s one.
“One of the ranches,” he says.
We drive for miles. Turner has 17 ranches of various acreages. The size and scale of the accumulated properties, which Turner has built up over the past 20 years or so, are mind-blowing. The three ranches consist of more than 1 million acres, about half of Turner’s total land holdings.
To be sure, the lands haven’t been acquired for aggrandizement or exploitation. Turner, a well-known environmentalist and philanthropist who famously donated $1 billion to establish the United Nations Foundation, wants to keep the land intact for generations. Which is partly why he and his team are launching an eco-tourism program: The properties, now part of a trust, are eventually to be self-sustaining. It may be the ultimate act in sustainability and conservation, even at a time when wilderness philanthropy has become en vogue among billionaires. Turner may be partially responsible for the trend: The Financial Times, in a November 2015 story about the global trend of land conservation, says, “Wildlands philanthropy is a particularly American idea, rooted in traditions of free enterprise.”
So I asked Turner why ecotourism on the lands and why now?
“Now seemed like the perfect time to move forward. The Turner Ranches have always had a dual purpose—to unite economic viability with ecological sustainability,” he says.
Truth or Consequences itself is giant knickknack-looking town of 7,000 people. This is where the expeditions begin. Guests arrive at the Sierra Grande Lodge and then head out. At the Armendaris Ranch, there aren’t accommodations, but guests can visit the property. From there, there are heritage tours and mountain hikes. At the Ladder Ranch, there is mountain biking, photography and art walks, among other activities. Vermejo has its own agenda and sits apart from the Armendaris and Ladder ranches and the Sierra Grande Lodge. And a new property has been added, according to Mokotoff: Ted Turner’s private island in South Carolina, St. Phillips Island. It sits between Savannah and Charleston and is relatively untouched and unspoiled except for the home on the property.
The purchase of the Sierra Grande Lodge and Spa in 2013 really sparked the move into hospitality, though. “We decided it was time to open up these properties to others in the hopes they will experience and appreciate the wonders of nature as much as we have,” he explains.
The Sierra Grande Lodge is just 18 rooms. But Turner’s endeavors are never small. The lodge is merely a gateway to the big, bold and beautiful land beyond. Turner is the personification of “go big or go home.” Take CNN and the original cable TV “superstation,” TBS. They disrupted the norms of television programming and viewer habits. Yet they began humbly on cable. Or take Ted’s Montana Grill, an ambitious restaurant concept that now includes 45 locations. The restaurant chain, while a sizable venture itself, is but a doorway to an even bigger concept: repopulating bison.