Special Report

Ted’s Terrible Troubles

Not only has Ted Turner's fortune plummeted, but some of his favorite enviro causes could be left to go hungry or be devoured by wolves.

By 2.9.03

Ted Turner has been in the news lately. The legendary media titan resigned his seat on the board of AOL-Time-Warner, where the value of a share of its stock decreased 70 percent in the last two years. Consequently, Turner's personal net worth shrunk from roughly $7 billion to $2 billion in that time. It's gotten so bad that his financial advisers finally got him to switch his legal residence from Georgia to Florida to take advantage of the Sunshine State's absence of a state income tax. And Turner recently dumped 450,000 shares of AOL-Time-Warner stock, a portion of which went to the United Nations as part of his well-known pledge of $1 billion to be paid over ten years.

Needless to say, Turner's money woes don't bode well for his myriad philanthropic activities (for instance, he may be forced to extend that U.N. payment schedule by a few years). Gloom is descending on everybody from U.N. bureaucratic hacks to scruffy tree huggers. Ted's liberal do-gooder spendthrift days seem to be on hold until the U.S. economy improves. "As soon as the stock market rebounds, we really want to get back in the game," Devon Finley, a program officer at the Turner Foundation, told the Portland Oregonian.

A recent story in that paper by staff writers Michelle Cole and Jonathan Brinckman tells us that the Green gravy train has derailed. Nonprofit environmental organizations rely on philanthropic organizations for 60 to 80 percent of their total revenues, and "the nation's top ten environmental grant-makers, led by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, saw assets drop in two years from $51 billion to $39 billion. Awards to environmental groups fell $73 million." Grants from the top ten had climbed 78 percent from 1997 to 2001, reflecting fat times in the stock market, but are down an average of 30 percent since then. The downturn has forced the Turner Foundation to award no new grants in 2003, though it will honor "previous commitments."

The American West's most notorious land baron is very supportive of local Green groups in the Northern Rockies, home to three of his sprawling ranches. Montana organizations including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Predator Project, the Northern Plains Resource Council, and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies have long enjoyed Turner's patronage. The last group, based in Missoula, has laid off two of three paid staffers (becoming an Alliance of One?) as its annual budget shrunk from $400,000 to $150,000 in just the last year. It also closed a field office in the ritzy ski town of Ketchum, Idaho (those high rents for office space just to be amongst the disinterested glitterati must have been awful).

"One of the people we laid off focused on ecosystem defense," Mike Garrity , the Alliance of One's Executive Director told the Oregonian. "He commented on and appealed timber sales. So we [I?] probably won't be able to comment on as many timber sales."

The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation (83 percent of its assets are in Coca Cola stock) has steadily decreased its annual enviro-philanthropy from $42 million in 1997 to $11.5 million -- a full 70 percent -- in 2001. The weak economy coupled with the extremely competitive soft drink market forces upon the Atlanta-based foundation "times for austerity," its head, Charles McTier, told Cole and Brinckman. (Attention unemployed timber workers: drink Pepsi!)

Looking in their own backyard, the reporters found that such trickle-down misery means that the LaGrande, Oregon Hell's Canyon Preservation Council's annual budget is down from $305,000 to $229,000 in a year. There have been salary cuts and other belt-tightening measures. "We're going to get creative. We're not going away," said Ric Bailey, the group's executive director. Even the Sierra Club -- with its massive $70 million annual budget -- is shaky. "We're trying to hold the line," said Richard Dietrich, associate director for foundation and corporate relations.

Look for an amplification of the Green Left's standard shrill Bush-Cheney bashing, and other "the-sky-is-falling" rhetoric; SUVs being the current politically incorrect target. Anything to help fill those shrinking donation coffers. As Mr. Bailey said: "We're going to get creative."

In the meantime, let's all pity poor Ted Turner. He's slowly going broke, and he's lost Jane. But I have faith in old Ted. He's an American success story, and he'll be back.

Hey, maybe he'll hook up with Arianna Huffington.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.