The American Safari

First image...
Casa Grande.

Where The Wild Things Are

Ted Turner opens his private ranchland as models for the American Safari.

Ted Turner and his bison at Flying D Ranch in southwest Montana.
Coyote cubs at Vermejo Park Ranch.

By Costas Christ
As we gather for dinner at Flying D Ranch near Bozeman, Montana, Ted Turner looks out the back door of his post-and-beam home. “Do you see how the pond perfectly reflects the mountains?” he asks, as the sun slips below the distant Spanish Peaks. “Jane loved swimming here, surrounded by nature,” Turner says of his former wife Jane Fonda – still a good friend – as the mirror-flat pond does its trick a few yards off the porch.
A no-nonsense man of few words and huge accomplishments, Turner won the America’s Cup against all odds in 1977 as a swashbuckling newcomer, made history when he launched CNN as the world’s first 24-hour news channel, and donated a billion dollars to establish the United Nations Foundation to address the world’s most pressing problems (“One of the most satisfying things I have ever done,” he tells me). Through the years, the Georgia native, now 78, also set out to tackle his biggest challenge – preserving the planet by buying up vast tracts of land and restoring them to wilderness. Turner currently holds more than 2 million acres in North America and Argentina, and his Turner Endangered Species Fund supports biodiversity projects around the world.
In a natural move for the lifelong conservationist and entrepreneur, he recently launched Ted Turner Expeditions, opening his New Mexico ranches to travelers who share his passion for desert and mountain wilds. At Vermejo Park Ranch, north of Santa Fe, guests stay at the seven-bedroom Casa Grande, which served as his private residence for 20 years. The 25,000-square-foot estate, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentor, Joseph Lyman Silsbee, was once a popular escape for Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and other Hollywood stars. Today, nature lovers set out with local guides to learn about wildlife such as elk and cougars, ride horses through canyons, and hike in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains along the ranch’s western boundary. Farther south, Ladder Ranch serves as an ecotourism basecamp for discovering a combined 520,200-acre wilderness area. By day, guests can search for some of the rarest native species in North America, including the endangered Bolson tortoise, now thriving on Turner’s land through the efforts of resident biologists; at night, they can sit on the front porch and track satellites and shooting stars across the Land of Enchantment sky.
Turner’s holdings are so vast they encompass entire ecosystems of their own. Some 50,000 bison roam his western grasslands – more than the entire population in Yellowstone National Park. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Turner helped save American buffalo from going the way of the passenger pigeon. Wolves are another success story: In 1997, he reintroduced Mexican gray wolves to Ladder Ranch, and Rocky Mountain gray wolves have naturally returned to his Montana ranches from nearby Yellowstone, along with other species, creating a model for what Turner calls “rewilding America.” 
“As Ted gets older, he is doing everything he can to save more of our planet,” says Taylor Glover, CEO of Turner Enterprises. “But to make this work long term, we need a sustainable conservation approach that goes beyond Ted’s personal philanthropy.” The three New Mexico ranches serve as his pilot project for ecotourism.
If successful, Turner plans on opening more of his private land to the public. “I want to inspire people to care about the environment,” Turner says. “When we connect with nature, we heal ourselves. When we protect nature, we heal the planet.” And that may be his greatest accomplishment yet.
Turner’s five-bedroom Ladder Ranch house, filled with personal touches from his expeditions and adventures, comes with a house manager and private chef and is available for exclusive retreats for up to 20 guests for three- to five-day expeditions. Groups explore 520,000 acres of wilderness spread across his Armendaris and Ladder ranches through guided hikes, mountain biking, four-wheel-drive wildlife excursions, and hot-air ballooning. (Guests at Turner’s Sierra Grande Lodge & Spa, a 17-room, one-casita resort on a geothermal hot springs in nearby Truth or Consequences, can reserve half- and full-day Armendaris and Ladder ranch excursions à la carte.)
In 1907, Midwest aristocrat William Bartlett moved Casa Grande’s huge stone columns (originally destined for the Chicago Bank) to become part of his seven-bedroom, nine-bathroom house. Turner purchased the former hunting and fishing estate more than two decades ago to incorporate into his Vermejo Park Ranch, a 583,000-acre expanse of fields, forests, and mountains rising to 13,000 feet. Today, visitors experience the equivalent of a private national park bordering New Mexico and Colorado, with activities such as fly-fishing, horseback riding, mountain trekking, and wildlife photography (bears, mountain lions, elk, and other big species roam the area).

Photo Credits: Ted Turner (ROGER MOENKS); Wolf Cubs (SEAN FITZGERALD); Casa Grande (BRETT SCHRECKENGOST)