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Ted Turner is the second largest private land owner in the United states. He recently opened up four of his properties to guests who want to experience nature tourism on his ranches in New Mexico.Ted Turner Reserves

Most people, when they hear the name Ted Turner, immediately think of the outspoken businessman who founded CNN, the all-news channel based out of Atlanta. Few know him as one of the great conservationists of our time: A man who has given hundreds of millions of his personal wealth to save endangered species and protect vast tracts of land so future generations can enjoy them.

On a recent trip to New Mexico, I, too, had a crash course in getting to know a whole other side of the larger-than-life personality, who among many other goals, made it a personal mission to save the American bison from extinction. (He now owns the largest private herd in the world with more than 50,000 heads).

I was part of an intimate group of conservationists, eco-luxury travel advisers, biologists and local politicians who were invited to spend a few days touring three of the four properties in New Mexico that are part of Ted Turner Reserves, the regenerative-tourism division of Turner Enterprises, whose sole purpose is to connect guests with nature and to show them that private lands can play a crucial role as guardians of imperilled species.

My stay starts in the tiny town of Truth or Consequences, a name I couldn’t get my head around (nor, apparently, can the locals who have shortened it to “T or C”). There is a story here. Originally called Hot Springs (because geothermal waters bubble to the surface), the town’s forebears in the 1950s decided, as part of a radio contest, to name it after a popular quiz show.

The locals say it started as a joke but the name stuck and, in 2013, Turner bought the Sierra Grande Lodge & Spa, which is by far the nicest hotel in this sleepy hamlet. It functions as a launching pad for guests, like me, to have a soak and massage before driving to Turner’s sibling ranches – the Ladder and Armendaris – which are located in a hauntingly beautiful and unforgiving landscape that has slowly been nurtured back to its natural state.

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Turner’s ranches are considered eco-labs.CHCone/Ted Turner Reserves

Many years ago, Mark Twain famously said: “Buy land, they’re not making it anymore.” Turner followed that advice and currently ranks as the second-largest private landowner in the United States with 14 ranches in the U.S. and three in Argentina with a total land mass of more than two million acres (to put that in perspective, it’s roughly the same size as Yellowstone National Park).

As Mike Phillips, director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, explains, “Ted’s lands are scattered throughout a dizzying array of ecological settings, from long leaf forests in the south, to the grasslands of the Great Plains, the mountain ranges of the Northern Rockies, to the desert grasslands of the southwest. And a number of settings in between. It’s that rich diversity that makes Ted’s lands, I could argue, the most important assemblage of private conservation lands in the world.”

I am picked up outside Sierra Grande in a black SUV with a “Save Everything” bumper sticker, a tagline that sums up the mission behind Turner’s nature tourism group, which offers luxurious – but still rustic and cozy – accommodations in unspoiled, protected environments. What it means, says Jade McBride, president of Ted Turner Reserves, “is that Ted believes every species on Earth matters.

“All of us here take that motto to heart,” says McBride, who prior to joining Turner, was managing director of Montana’s five-star Ranch at Rock Creek, and before that, was activities director of Amangiri, a luxury retreat hidden deep in the Utah desert. “It’s not just about restoring forests and streams, or history and culture, it’s also about saving us, the human race. By inviting people into these buildings, into his homes, Ted wants to show future generations we can leave these properties better than we found them.”

Our first stop is the Ladder, a 156,000-acre ranch Turner bought in 1992, which is now open to guests, who can stay at Turner’s four-bedroom home, the Country House, decorated by his then wife Jane Fonda. It’s recently been renovated but kept a lot of Fonda’s retro southwestern flair.

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Vermejo, Turner’s largest property.Ted Turner Reserves

We ditch the SUV and get into an ATV to explore the property, located in the foothills of the Black Range, mountains that form the eastern ridge of Gila Wilderness, the world’s first designated wilderness created in 1924 at the urging of Aldo Leopold, considered the father of wildlife ecology.

Guide Ken Stinnett knows we’re desperate to spot some bison so we begin the bumpy journey over what amounts to a meagre portion of the 500 miles of road on the ranch. The ranch crew have removed miles of fence that used to cordon off the land so animals – ranging from elk, pronghorn, deer, turkeys, bears and quail – have free rein.

Stinnett explains that guests of the Ladder can take guided tours to find wildlife (which also include various species of migratory neo-tropical birds from Mexico and South America), view vivid petroglyphs made by the Apache and Spaniards, and visit Indian War battle sites, mining-era ghost towns and rugged hilltops where the prehistoric Native Americans, the Mimbres, once lived.

As we are winding our way through canyons and streams, we finally spot a group of about 50 bison gathered around a watering hole. According to Stinnett, bison are typically divided by sex, with females and calves in one herd and males in another. We’re lucky because this group is mamas with wee ones, who look minuscule compared with parents who stand up to six feet tall (1.8 metres) and weigh about 900 pounds (400 kg). Stinnett says they’re a beautiful, if slightly ornery animal, and they do look disdainfully back at us, daring us to come closer. We try. They promptly depart. But our small group is thrilled to see the largest land animal in North America so up close.

Ranch crew have removed miles of fence that used to cordon off the land so animals have free rein.Ted Turner Reserves

Turner’s ranches are considered eco-labs and on Ladder there’s a Mexican gray wolf recovery project (one male wandered off the ranch onto public land and was shot about a week before I arrived) as well as a Bolson tortoise reintroduction project. We meet a particularly friendly tortoise named Smitty, who came out of his burrow to say hello. He’s a youngster given that, as Stinnett explains, the Bolson (the largest tortoise in North America) can live up to 130 years. The work Turner and his team have done is significant because the big turtle of the desert has not been seen in these parts for several thousand years.

As the afternoon draws to a close, we head to Armendaris, the 360,000-acre ranch Turner bought in 1994. The first thing I notice is that the ranch sign is riddled with bullet holes. I ask Stinnett why and he shrugs, “Every sign in New Mexico has to be shot.”

We wind our way down a dirt road for several miles before pulling up in front of Turner’s 6,000-square-foot adobe lodge, one he built with Fonda, with a spectacular view of the Fra Cristobal mountains, which loom over this section of the Chihuahuan Desert.

Turner’s house is grand, but not grandiose, and its thick adobe walls – the colour of desert sand – blend seamlessly into the landscape, which is full of prickly cholla cactus, scrub, mesquite and plains of black grama grass. Cretaceous period fossils have been discovered on this former sea floor, including the bones of a triceratops. Cutting through Turner’s land is a trail the Spanish conquistadors called Jornada del Muerto – the Journey of the Dead Man – because of how unforgiving this part of the state was.

Inside the home, the decor celebrates New Mexico artists with museum-quality Native American pottery, baskets, rugs and Western paintings. Like at the Ladder, there are animal recovery programs at Armendaris. Phillips says one they are particularly proud of, the desert bighorn sheep project, has played a key role in helping to restore the number of these majestic animals, resulting in them being taken off the endangered species list.

The game room at Vermejo.Ted Turner Reserves

In addition to the bighorns that live in the foothills of the Fra Cristobals, Armendaris is home to bison, pronghorn, oryx, javelina, mule deer and the more than one million Mexican free-tailed bats who migrate to the Jornada lava flows (on Turner’s ranch) where they give birth to their babies. Stinnett says the giant lava caves function as a “bat maternity ward” and at dusk they swoop out en masse to hunt for food for their offspring. Sadly, I was not able to see the “bat show,” which occurs from March to October.

While Turner, 84, may be one of the world’s most generous conservationists (he donated US$1-billion to the United Nations in 1997), he is also a capitalist. And McBride says Ted Turner Reserves is a critical part of his succession plan. Five years ago, the media legend was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, and he is determined to do everything he can, with the time he has left, to ensure his ranches are solvent. “Eco-tourism, or nature tourism, is just one more way for Ted to reach that goal.”

On my last night at Armendaris, we are served a delicious New Mexican meal of posole (a rich stew) and corn chowder shooters, Navajo fry bread, wild game meatballs, trout salsa, oven-roasted qual knots, lamb lollipops and for dessert, tres leches cake chased down with a sparkling wine, Gruet, from a nearby winery. Sated, to bursting, I then head to the Great Room, which runs the length of the back of the house, to watch the sunset. The limitless sky, with the Fra Cristobals in the foreground, takes my breath away. The colours don’t just change as the sun goes down, they melt into each other, first purple, then pink, a rose-coloured teal, a delicate green and finally a soft yellow, rimmed with red, fades to a midnight blue.

In that moment I understand perfectly why, as McBride says, Armendaris holds such a special place in Turner’s heart. There is a mysticism here, a majesty that makes mere humans feel relatively insignificant.

The Jornada Bat Caves at Armendaris.Ted Turner Reserves

McBride says what makes Ted Turner Reserves so unique as a travel and eco-education destination is its sheer scale. “No other resort property, eco or otherwise, has the kind of land mass these experiences have. The most common thing I hear our guests say after spending time on these properties is, ‘I can’t believe how much I’ve learned. I feel like I’ve gone back in time.’”

In the coming months, the Flying D – another Turner ranch in Montana – is rumoured to be opening to guests. When I ask, McBride only smiles and says, “Ted believes we have to share these properties with people, because it will make better humans out of them.”

If you go

Fly to Albuquerque or El Paso. I flew into one and out of the other. They’re about equi-distance from Sierra Grande.

Accommodations: The Ladder, sleeps eight, with prices that start at US$2,500 a night (for up to four guests) with each additional guest US$500 a night. The cost includes a private chef and activities; Sierra Grand Lodge & Spa, room prices range from US$350 in high season (double occupancy) to US$185 in low season; The Hacienda at Armendaris, prices start at US$3,500 for up to four guests, with each additional guest US$500 a night. The cost includes private chef and activities; Vermejo, in northern New Mexico, is Turner’s largest property (560,000 acres) with an extensive range of accommodations including the Costilla Creek Fishing Lodge, Turner House, Casa Grande and various cottages. Guest rooms start at US$1,200 in low season (double occupancy) and go up to US$2,000 a night in high season. Varmejo’s cottages (three to five bedrooms) are US$2,000 to US$9,600 a night; and exclusive buyouts of the Costilla Creek Fishing Lodge or the Casa Grande manor mansion start at US$10,500 and go up to US$18,000.

Not to miss: Jornada Bat Caves at Armendaris. The image of thousands of free-tailed bats erupting from dormant lava tubes at twilight is something you won’t forget. While the bats are hunting, they too, are being hunted by raptors, Swainson’s hawks and other predators. The bats occupy the caves from March through October.

The writer was a guest of Ted Turner Reserves, which did not review or approve this article.

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