Ted Turner, longtime Nebraska land baron, still buying as next chapter nears

Dec. 8, 2023, 6 a.m. ·

Ted Turner Photo 1.jpg
Ted Turner, center, stands with longtime CNN personality Larry King and actress Jane Fonda at a 1996 awards ceremony. Turner and Fonda famously wed in 1991 before divorcing in 2001. Associated Press photo

Long before anyone talked about China, Bill Gates or multinational corporations buying up Nebraska land, another name was spoken, with curiosity and frustration, on farms and ranches from Ord to Ogallala.

Ted Turner, they said. Ted Turner is buying everything.

The media mogul’s Nebraska land purchases in the late 1990s made him the single largest landowner in the state while sparking speculation.

Small-town residents worried the billionaire’s land buys – at his peak, Turner owned nearly a half-million Nebraska acres – would drive up prices and edge out locals. Conservationists cheered, because Turner had committed to restore the American bison to the Great Plains. The number of bison in Nebraska has in fact soared thanks in part to his plans.

Now the curiosity has shifted: What will become of the land once the 85-year-old Turner is gone?

Turner, who announced he has Lewy body dementia in 2018, has since given away at least 80,000 acres to an agricultural research nonprofit that could apply for an exemption to avoid paying property taxes.

Turner quelled initial concern when he and the Turner Institute of Ecoagriculture announced in 2021 that the nonprofit would continue to pay property taxes on those 80,000 acres – a big deal in rural counties reliant on those tax dollars.

But Turner still controls nearly 400,000 acres of land, according to acreage information listed on his website. A Flatwater Free Press analysis of county assessor records shows that Turner is transferring most of it to Sandhills Ranch Properties – a trade name that encompasses the donated land and individual LLCs for each Turner ranch.

When contacted by the Flatwater Free Press this week, and asked how much additional land Turner has given the institute – and if the nonprofit would continue to pay taxes on that land – Turner Enterprises executives and South Dakota State University researchers connected to the institute declined comment.

“While we appreciate your tenacity and interest in our story, we must respectfully decline participation,” wrote Phillip Evans, Turner Enterprises’ chief communications officer.

Turner or his representatives have continued to buy Nebraska land in recent years, even as Turner lives with a form of dementia that proves fatal on average about seven to eight years after symptoms start, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Between 2018 and 2020, they spent $13.5 million to acquire 18,000 acres, according to land sale data gathered by a University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications data journalism class and analyzed by the Flatwater Free Press. There were no purchases in 2021 or 2022.

These purchases are listed as so-called “unqualified sales” – generally sales that a county assessor deems shouldn’t be counted in a study, or used to assess surrounding property values, often because the sale price is unusual.

These unqualified sales weren’t counted in the Flatwater Free Press’ list of the Top 100 land buyers because much of the unqualified sales data reported to the state was rife with errors. Turner’s purchases appear to contain no errors.

If unqualified sales had been counted, Turner would have ranked as the fourth-largest buyer by acre.

In that same time frame, Turner also sold 6,008 acres for about $2.7 million in Cherry, Garden and Sheridan counties.

This slower buying and selling – and the presumed gradual movement of most of Turner’s land to the Turner Institute of Ecoagriculture – represents the latest chapter in a story involving the founder of CNN and his long-standing fascination with the American bison.

Turner’s first giant land buy was a Montana ranch in 1986. He proceeded to buy 13 more ranches in five states across the Great Plains and southwest United States, according to his website.

And, starting in 1995, he bought land in Nebraska – a whole lot of it.

His original purchase was Spike Box Ranch. He then acquired nearly 500,000 acres total in the state, much of it in Cherry, Sheridan and Garden counties.

That meant that, at the peak, Turner owned an amount of Nebraska land more than double the size of Douglas County.

From the beginning, Turner’s ranches have focused on raising bison. That focus has helped spur a remarkable comeback.

In 1884, there were only 325 bison left in the U.S.

Today, there are roughly 430,000 – and roughly 10% of those are owned by Turner, according to the National Bison Association. His herds also make Nebraska the No. 2 state for bison, behind only South Dakota.

This ranching, far different from his neighbors, drew skepticism from people like Cindy Weller, who owns land next to Turner’s Spike Box Ranch.

Today, Weller, whose family has owned land here since the 19th century, says she has no issue with how Turner’s employees have run the ranch.

She does believe that moneyed out-of-staters like Turner make it harder for regular Nebraska ranchers.

“It’s a burden when people with outside money come in and buy the land for higher than what you could actually support by just running a cow-calf operation,” she said.

Those working to preserve the bison say Turner’s decades-long commitment is invaluable.

Jim Matheson, director of the National Bison Association, helped aid the 2020 creation of South Dakota State University’s Center of Excellence for Bison Studies. Turner has helped grow that program, Matheson said.

Shortly after Turner and family members created the Turner Institute of Ecoagriculture, it entered into a formal research agreement with the university.

And Turner has also helped improve the fate of the bison by raising them, even though they’re eventually slaughtered.

“I know it seems weird that selling bison meat helps preserve them but it’s part of the process,” Matheson said.

Over the decades, Turner has faced an array of criticism in the Sandhills, complaints as trivial as the height of his fences (they need to be taller to keep bison in) to theories that he was trying to buy up all the Nebraska land over the Ogallala Aquifer.

In a 2008 interview with the Omaha World-Herald, Turner addressed those concerns.

“I’ve never sold any water rights to anyone and don’t intend to,” said Turner.

Dave Hutchinson, longtime bison rancher near Rose, points out that bison operations like Turner’s actually need less water than conventional cattle ranches.

“Bison require low stress management and don’t typically need much water," he said.

And Turner appeared to be fending off another line of criticism – namely, that his land would eventually be given to an entity that wouldn’t pay property taxes – when he announced in 2021 that he had gifted 80,000 acres to the institute bearing his name.

“I believe that local property taxes provide essential support for services on which our ranchers and communities depend,” he said then. “The Institute will continue to pay its share of taxes to support the local communities.”

That’s a big promise for rural Nebraska counties who fund various services, including schools, in part through property taxes.

In Cherry County alone, Turner’s properties are valued at nearly $120 million, according to that county’s assessor’s office.

He paid more than $960,000 in property taxes to Cherry County this year.

Despite Turner’s assurances, some still worry what may happen once he donates his other properties to the nonprofit – and if his promises to pay property tax will hold once he’s gone.

“If it comes off the tax rolls, it indirectly means that property taxes are going to go up for everybody,” said State Sen. Tom Brewer, a Republican whose district includes Cherry County. “We have some counties that could literally not make ends meet.”

There’s no law that legally binds Turner’s nonprofit to pay property taxes – though it’s unclear if the Turner Institute of Ecoagriculture would actually qualify for the tax exemption if it profits by selling bison meat.

It’s also unclear if the nonprofit would ever want to go against Turner’s wishes since, by definition, a nonprofit doesn’t need to maximize profit, said Paul Weitzel, associate law professor at the Nebraska College of Law.

But the fact remains: A nonprofit whose mission it is to research sustainable ranching could do more research if it saved millions in property tax payments each year.

Jessica Shoemaker, law professor at Nebraska College of Law who focuses on agricultural sustainability, said Turner could force the nonprofit to pay property taxes after he dies based on the terms of the land transfers. But those terms tend to have an expiration date.

“In general, a decedent can control what happens to his or her assets upon her death and for a somewhat shorter period of time after death, but not forever,” Shoemaker said.

Turner remains listed as the institute’s board chair. The board of directors consists of his children and grandchildren.

Much apart from the discussion of property taxes, nearby landowners told the Flatwater Free Press that they will always pay attention to Turner’s Sandhills land – past his death and until their own.

“These farmers and ranchers here have a connection to the land,” Hutchinson said. “It’s the families and the heritage of just owning it.”

FFP reporter Destiny Herbers contributed to this story. FFP reporter Yanqi Xu contributed to the data analysis used in this story.

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.