Story by Elaine Glusac/ Photography by Jesse Rieser
December 2016/January 2017
If mountains are said to loom, to appear suddenly in portentous size, no range quite so captures the sudden part as Fra Cristobal, a 17-by-7-mile massif erupting from southern New Mexico’s desert scrub and lava fields some 150 miles south of Albuquerque. Deserted but for herds of springing pronghorn and dust-bathing bison, they attest to eons past in marine-fossiled canyon walls and unearthed sauropod bones. Hiking to the top is a matter of instinct, for there are no trails other than the occasional gameway. At the summit, a rattlesnake testily guards foreign splashes of color afforded by wildflowers fertilized by the scat of endemic creatures representing the full mammalian food chain from predatory mountain lion down to forsaken ground mouse. Conquistadors trekking from Mexico City to the territorial capital of Santa Fe on the Camino Real mapped this 100-mile stretch of desert the Jornada del Muerto, or Dead Man’s Journey, as they shed chain mail in their stagger north, etching the baked earth in a weary line still visible 400 years hence.
That the present so closely resembles the past is partly eco-systemic—neither man nor beast ever stood much chance of fully taming the Jornada del Muerto—and partly the efforts of the media mogul Ted Turner, who has spent much of the last 30 years puzzling back together the broken pieces of this western landscape until it more closely resembled a pre-European-contact picture. Now, after a relatively mum decade, the man who invented cable news is back to the bullhorn, evangelizing via a fledgling ecotourism business known as Ted Turner Expeditions (TTX).
“We’ve gotten rid of all the cattle on our property,” he explains, in an interview that rockets from “Call me, Ted” to nuclear disaster in the space of a sentence. “I don’t have a single cow. We’ve replaced them with bison, the original animal that populated the plains, that belong here. They’re more environmentally friendly as far as grazing is concerned. Cattle evolved in Europe, where there’s copious rainfall and lush grass, whereas bison grew up on the plains with no cattle or horses. The bison can get by on a much drier environment than cattle can. That’s for starters. Our ranches don’t have domestic sheep or domestic goats. They didn’t come from America either; they came over from Europe. The most numerous bird in the U.S. is the starling. There were none in North America. They were brought over from Europe to eat caterpillars on fruit trees, and they’ve taken off and become the most numerous bird in North America. Not one person in 10 knows it. You didn’t know it, did you?”
In conversation, Turner will go on like this. But the man once known as “the Mouth of the South” is also a man of action. Some 51,000 native ungulates now graze across 1.9 million acres in the western U.S. on 14 Turner ranches, two of which are newly open to the public through TTX in southern New Mexico. These sister ranches, the 156,000-acre riparian range Ladder Ranch and the nearby 363,000-acre geologic marvel Armendaris Ranch, home of the Fra Cristobal Mountains, are what his staff calls “conservation ranches,” whole ecosystems Turner is restoring to native states as models for environmental education. While the National Park Service celebrates its centennial this year as one of the country’s best ideas, Turner’s land represents a new kind of park, a private national park, encompassing the ideals and ambitions of its outspoken owner.
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