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The New West: The role of eco-capitalism in saving the best that remains



CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

While I was researching my book on Greater Yellowstone media pioneer turned bison rancher Ted Turner, “Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet,” my thinking about landscape-level conservation began to shift, particularly in pondering the critical intersection of public and private land.

As I’ve shared with friends, after giving a hundred public talks on Turner’s trailblazing ethos as an eco-capitalist, I’ve accrued far more knife wounds in the back from environmentalists who are skeptical about any billionaire doing good.

Some are warier of Turner than hardcore political conservatives who have convinced themselves he is somehow an evil lefty simply because he was married to actress Jane Fonda.

As an aside, it’s mind-boggling how many misperceptions of people are based upon mythology or hearsay and gossip that isn’t grounded in fact.

This I know: In business circles today, there are many people talking about “the triple bottom line,”—i.e., maintaining a measurable ledger sheet that accounts for three different kinds of values factored into business decisions.

The first is the factual reality that in order for the dividends of private lands conservation to persist into the future, being passed along from one generation to the next, they need to be economically sustainable. That is, conservation which functions only as a net debt proposition or liability passed to future generations cannot and will not last, no matter how solid the intentions.

That’s why Western ranch country is riddled with a history of land consolidations and bust-ups. Any self-righteous person who doesn’t understand the difference between operating in the red versus being in the black has no business criticizing people who live by its cruel reality. This is the economic leg of the triple-bottom line.

Ted Turner at his ecologically important Flying D Ranch southwest of Bozeman, which he protected with one of the largest conservation easements in the West. PHOTO BY TODD WILKINSON

Secondly, as Turner has put into practice and demonstrated by example, the ultimate goal is to leave land in as fine a condition, ecologically speaking, as one found it, or to do no harm, or, whenever possible, to use proceeds to heal past abuses and restore ecological function in a way that re-enhances natural values. This is the ecological leg and achieving this can be accelerated if incentives are provided that help alleviate the costs of doing good.

Thirdly, decisions should be made in a way in which humans are approached with dignity. This means treating employees well, and paying them a living wage with health insurance in the event they or family members get sick. It means that working for you does not leave employees in a chronic state of economic desperation.

It also means treating your neighbors with respect, and working constructively across fence lines to preserve the values both sides hold dear. It means trying to keep as much of your economic activity local, enabling investment dollars to trickle down and cycle widely throughout the community.

Many environmental problems inherited from the Old West are the result of not adhering to those principles—of approaching the region as one would a natural resource colony. Distant boardrooms aren’t always interested in the long-term condition of the land following its exploitation, or building durable, diverse communities, or thinking beyond short-term profitability.

In economic parlance, the costs that companies don’t account for, and have passed along for others to deal with, are called “externalities” and often those costs have been passed along to taxpayers in the form of expensive cleanups.

No one can deny that because of modern environmental regulations put on the books to protect public lands—and an accompanying shift toward more enlightened thinking, corporate accountability driven by social concerns of shareholders, and incentives for advancing better stewardship on private lands—things have dramatically improved over the last century.

That’s good news, but in a region like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the ecological threads holding wildness together extend across both private and public land. In some cases it doesn’t matter how big the public land base is; if key pieces of private land—like tracts encompassing river valleys, wildlife corridors and winter range or breeding habitat—aren’t safeguarded, the whole fabric could unravel.

A few years ago, Robert Keith, a private capital investment manager in Bozeman and founder of Beartooth Group, cited this stat at a TEDx talk: There are over 18,000 investment firms in the U.S. that manage about $16 trillion, investing about $500 billion a year in new projects.

Reflecting on the power of what’s possible, with people who want to make a positive impact on saving the Greater Yellowstone, America’s most iconic wild ecosystem, he asked, “What if we could take a tiny sliver of that investment capital and put it to work for a good cause, in our case restoration and protection of the American West?”

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (, is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at His feature on the delisting of Greater Yellowstone grizzlies appears in the winter 2018 issue of Mountain Outlaw and is now on newsstands.

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