Nov. 30, 2007 — -- For the past 20 years, Ted Turner has been quietly buying up large chunks of the western United States. He has become the single largest landowner in North America with more than 2 million acres.
Now with his latest purchase in Mullen, Neb., Turner also has access to the Ogallala Aquifer -- the world's largest underground water system.
The Aquifer lies under parts of eight states in the Great Plains, and has enough water to cover the entire country to a depth of 2 feet. Turner owns land on top of major sections of the Aquifer, which could be a growing source of power in the water-starved West.
He's been called "Ted the Terrible" and the "Mouth of the South" and many question his motives.
No one knows what to expect next from the man who started CNN, bought the Atlanta Braves franchise, pledged to give $1 billion of his own fortune to the United Nations and is personally trying to restore North America's buffalo population to its level before the West was won.
"Some people are ascribing all kinds of motives to Ted. That he's going to control the water and therefore the rest of the state," said Turner biographer Porter Bibb. "This guy is utterly unpredictable. He's also a little bit bizarre."
His staff said their boss doesn't have a secret agenda -- he just wants to be a rancher and a conservationist. But each big buy only heightens the anxiety and gives rise to conspiracy theories, the most ominous of which hold that the swashbuckling Atlanta executive is bent on putting Nebraska ranchers and farmers out of business.
Turner now owns land in 11 states, with most of his holdings in New Mexico, Nebraska, Montana and South Dakota. Throughout the area he is helping efforts to reintroduce or save not just buffalo, but cutthroat trout, wolves, black-footed ferrets and other fauna and flora that once filled the Plains.
He has founded the Turner Endangered Species Fund and worked with the Wildlands Project, an environmental group that wants to create a continentwide network of nature preserves to save endangered species.
But some local governments are worried that by turning yet more land into wildlife refuges, it will take tax money away from already cash-starved communities.
Others have complained that Turner's vast wealth allows him to outbid local ranchers, making it impossible for them to expand or maintain their family farms. His purchases are even said to drive up prices for land he's not even interested in buying, putting it out of reach of locals. In Nebraska, some have accused him of trying to drive ranchers out of business.
But Mike Phillips, executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, told The Associated Press that Turner is just a "doggone serious rancher" dedicated to preservation of the environment.
Turner, of course, is also a businessman and he has also used his acquisitions to make money, which his spokesman concedes is one of the driving forces behind his acquisitions. His elk hunting ranch in New Mexico offers weeklong excursions for a cool $12,000 per person. He has opened more than 50 Ted's Montana Grill restaurants that feature bison meat. His source for the meat? Turner owns 45,000 bison, the largest herd in the country.
"As long as he has the resources, he'll continue to amass resources," concluded Porter.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.