Reed Beauregard Turner (or Beau, as he is universally known) is one of the most influential and proactive conservationists in the world. He has been charged with the task of acquiring more than 2 million acres (spread out over 21 properties in 12 states in North America and three in Argentina), and then deciding where the millions of dollars allocated to research, restoration and land management programs will be spent on those properties. Turner serves as chairman of the trustees for the Turner Endangered Species Fund and director of natural resources for Turner Enterprises, Inc., positions where he is regularly part of the global discussion about how to balance care for the planet with political and economic agendas.
Discovering a Passion
Despite his heavy workload, however, Beau’s approach to life and work remain firmly rooted in a simple lesson he learned at the age of 5.
“It all goes back to the land.” He says, “I spent most of my time outdoors as a kid, hunting and fishing with my dad and other mentors.” “I can still remember the day I caught my first fish at the age of five. From that moment on, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to protect the land and the animals on it.”
Oddly enough, Beau never thought he would be working with or for his father, media mogul Ted Turner.
“My goal was to find a way to make money and buy the land myself,” he says. Beau preferred being outdoors to focusing on books and eventually realized that he would have to give school his full attention if he hoped to realize his goal. “I really took college seriously and did quite well. I knew I had to do well in school to do well by the environment. That was my passion and I was totally hooked.”
However, the elder Turner recognized vision when he saw it and made a pact with his son.
“My father and I shook on it,” Beau says. “I said if he would do something related to land acquisition and restoration I would come work for him. He said ‘absolutely,’ and really let me have the reins. In fact, looking back, I still can’t believe he trusted me as much as he did.”
That pact came to fruition in the early 1990s, when Ted put Beau in charge of finding and purchasing huge parcels of ranch land. Together, the father-son team became arguably the largest private landowners in the United States. They then set about restoring biodiversity, reintroducing native plant and animal species, and generating income. Beau calls this “holistic land management,” and the results, which include everything from preserving longleaf pines and protecting Black-footed Ferrets to raising bison and reintroducing Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, have been impressive.
Beau sees land management as a bit of a juggling act — trying to find a balance between preservation and the need to make a profit.
“People ask me all the time about property and how to protect the land but still have it pay for itself,” he says. “I always break it down by asking this question: Where do you get the biggest bang for your buck with the least amount of impact?” Beau outlines what he calls his “hierarchy of impact,” starting with the least destructive — hunters and fishermen — and moving up to farming (distinguishing between small and large farms), timber cutting, and mining. “If you think about trying to restore land that’s been used in each of these ways, obviously land that has been mined would be the toughest to bring back. We need to use that hierarchy as a gauge, a reality check, and ask ourselves, is the impact worth it?”
More Than Money
Beau is quick to point out, however, that no amount of government oversight or influx of money will result in the kind of lasting change that is needed.
His solution is simple and direct: community involvement.
“Instead of just throwing money at groups, we have to empower people,” he says. “It all comes down to communities. We’ve got to get local communities to understand that land is a resource, and they can’t over utilize it. We have to give them the tools to manage their resources. If we don’t do those two things, permanent change just won’t happen.”
By way of illustrating his point, Beau points to the Beau Turner Youth Conservation Center in Jefferson County, Fla. Opened in April 2008, it’s designed to offer young people the opportunity to connect with the natural world and learn about land stewardship. Activities at the center include fishing, archery, shooting sports, hiking nature trails and viewing wildlife.
Nature deficit disorder is another concern for Beau.
“I see that as a huge threat to today’s kids,” he says. “We’ve become such an indoor society. Kids aren’t getting outside. Why should they? Inside is cooler and easier. They’ve got video games to be their babysitters; just plug the kids in. It’s really alarming. Kids don’t know where food comes from. I find that frightening. I wanted the youth center to address that, to give kids a chance to get out side and make a connection to the land.”
From the moment its doors opened, the Beau Turner Youth Conservation Center has been enthusiastically embraced by the local community — a fact that still amazes Beau.
“I never thought this youth center would take off like it did,” he says. “I couldn’t pay people to work there. It had to be a volunteer thing. All I did was put out a table with a nice kind of Thanksgiving dinner on it. I thought maybe three or four people would want to volunteer, but since the center opened we’ve had hundreds of volunteers come through.”
The interest and energy the people of Jefferson County have brought to the Center are proof to Beau that he is on the right track.
“If I had lost some of my hope for the future, this center has restored it. When it started, and I watched this community jump all over it, I was stoked. They just can’t get enough of it, and this has given me real hope. It’s a real burst of adrenaline.”
Beau’s plans for the future include continuing in his role with the Turner Foundation and pushing the idea of community involvement with young people. If you want to talk about getting people engaged with and excited about the environment, then you have to get them when they’re kids,” he says. “Communities need to be involved with their kids. My son, for example, has had a huge impact on how I live and interact with this community. The people here have become my extended family.”
Looking back on his childhood, spent with people who taught him to hunt, fish, and learn from nature, Beau is convinced that the connection he forged with the land shaped the person he became.
“Basically the first fish I caught woke something up in me — a love for the land, a desire to protect it and to give back by helping others. If we can do the same for some of these kids at our youth centers, then we will have passed the message along. We will have kept the hope alive.”