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Originally published Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Ted Turner's land grab generates suspicion in Nebraska

The mogul's purchase of 2 million acres in the past two decades has unnerved some neighbors who wonder about his agenda.

The Associated Press

MULLEN, Neb. — Ted Turner's men didn't flinch. As the price climbed past $8 million, $9 million, $9.5 million, they continued bidding.

When the auction was over, they walked away with what they came for: 26,300 acres of prime ranchland, at a cost of nearly $10 million.

"It hasn't taken long to find out he's serious," said Duane Kime, a rancher and Turner neighbor who was outbid by about $100,000 by the CNN founder.

But what is Turner serious about?

The question gnaws at folks in Mullen and in other rural areas of the country where people once thought the billionaire just wanted to play cowboy.

Turner has amassed 2 million acres in the past two decades to become the largest private landowner in the country. He owns large chunks of land in 11 states, with most of his holdings in New Mexico, Nebraska, Montana and South Dakota, and is restoring buffalo, cutthroat trout, wolves, black-footed ferrets and other flora and fauna that filled the Plains before the West was won.

His representatives said their boss doesn't have a secret agenda; he just wants to be a rancher. But each big buy 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.

"With him, it's such a concern," said Cindy Weller, who lives on the family ranch near Mullen.

"You don't know what his plan is and what he's going to do."

Among the theories:

• Turner is trying to corner the land over the Ogallala Aquifer, the world's largest underground water system, to gain power in the water-starved West.

• He is scheming, perhaps with the United Nations, to create a vast wildlife refuge and turn it over to the federal government, removing the land from Nebraska's tax rolls. That could hurt Nebraska schools and other services, which are starved for cash.

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Mike Phillips, executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, a Turner offshoot, insisted his boss is just a "doggone serious rancher," though one dedicated to preserving the environment.

But Phillips' presence is making people wonder. He once worked with The Wildlands Project, an environmental group that wants to create a continentwide network of nature preserves to save endangered species. The Turner Foundation, the charity arm of Turner's empire, has contributed money to it and gives millions to dozens of other environmental groups.

Turner's organizations also have been in discussions with the World Wildlife Fund and the World Conservation Union about conserving bison.

Turner's spokesmen said the driving force behind Turner's land purchases is the desire to make money. Turner's Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico, for example, offers weeklong elk-hunting excursions at $12,000 a pop. He also has entered the restaurant business, opening more than 50 Ted's Montana Grill restaurants across the country that feature bison meat.

Turner declined to be interviewed, accepting only written questions answered by spokesman Phillip Evans.

"Our agenda is not to create a vast wildlife preserve," Evans, vice president of Turner Enterprises, said in an e-mail. However, he said, Turner is concerned about preserving animal habitat while ranching. "We think we can do both."

Turner owns the largest bison herd in the country, 45,000 strong, many on the 425,000 acres he owns in Nebraska.

Bison need less attention than cattle, requiring fewer ranch hands. That adds to people's worries in Hooker County, where there is about one person for every 721 square miles, just 15 children graduated from high school last year and the population dropped 3.4 percent from 2000 to 2006.

Another complaint is that Turner's ability to outbid just about anyone is driving up land prices.

Over the past decade, ranch land in the Sandhills region, where Turner owns all his property in the state, has more than doubled in price to more than $300 an acre.

The recent auction was the third time in recent years that Kime was outbid by Turner, who borders about three-quarters of Kime's ranch, leaving Kime to wonder whether someday he might have to sell the ranch that has been in the family for generations.

"Turner might be the only one around that would want to buy it," he said.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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