Long before anyone talked about China, Bill Gates or multinational corporations buying up Nebraska land, another name was spoken, with curiosity and frustration, on farms and ranches from Ord to Ogallala.
Ted Turner, they said. Ted Turner is buying everything.
The media mogul’s back-to-back Nebraska land purchases in the late 1990s made him the single largest landowner in the state while sparking speculation and concern.
Small-town residents worried the billionaire’s land buys – at his peak, Turner owned nearly a half-million acres of Nebraska ranch land – would drive up prices and edge out locals. Conservationists cheered, because Turner had committed to restore the American bison to the Great Plains. And in fact, the number of bison in Nebraska has soared thanks in part to his plans.
Now the curiosity and concern has shifted: What will become of the land once the 85-year-old Turner is gone?
Turner, who announced he has Lewy body dementia in 2018, has since given away at least 80,000 acres to an agricultural research nonprofit that could apply for an exemption to avoid paying property taxes.
Turner quelled initial concern when he and the Turner Institute of Ecoagriculture publicly announced in 2021 that the nonprofit would continue to pay property taxes on those 80,000 acres – a big deal in rural counties reliant on those tax dollars.
But Turner still controls nearly 400,000 acres of land, according to acreage information listed on his website. A Flatwater Free Press analysis of county assessor records shows that Turner is transferring almost all of these acres to an entity called Sandhills Ranch Properties – a trade name that encompasses the donated land and individual LLCs for each Turner Enterprises ranch.
When contacted by the Flatwater Free Press this week, and asked how much additional land Turner has given to the institute – and if the nonprofit would continue to pay taxes on that land – both Turner Enterprises executives and South Dakota State University researchers connected to the institute declined comment.
“While we appreciate your tenacity and interest in our story, we must respectfully decline participation,” wrote Phillip Evans, Turner Enterprises’ chief communications officer, in an email.
Turner or his representatives have continued to buy Nebraska land in recent years, even as Turner lives with a form of dementia that proves fatal on average about seven to eight years after symptoms start, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Between 2018 and 2020, they spent nearly $13.5 million to acquire more than 18,000 acres, according to land sale data gathered by a University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications data journalism class and analyzed by the Flatwater Free Press. There were no purchases in 2021 or 2022.
These purchases are listed as so-called “unqualified sales” – generally sales that a county assessor deems shouldn’t be counted in a study, or used to assess surrounding property values, often because the sale price is unusually high or low or because it’s being transferred among family members.
These unqualified sales weren’t counted in the Flatwater Free Press’ list of the Top 100 land buyers because much of the unqualified sales data reported to the state was rife with errors. Turner’s purchases appear to contain no errors.
If unqualified sales had been counted, Turner would have ranked as the fourth-largest buyer by acre.
In that same time frame, Turner also sold 6,008 acres for about $2.7 million total in Cherry, Garden and Sheridan counties. That included a 2019 sale of 1,110 acres to the State of Nebraska Board of Educational Lands and Funds, which owns and leases land while giving all net income to Nebraska public schools.
This slower buying and selling – and the presumed gradual movement of most of Turner’s land to the Turner Institute of Ecoagriculture – represents the latest chapter in a story involving the founder of CNN, remote Sandhills ranchland and Turner’s long-standing fascination with the American bison.
Turner’s first giant land buy was a Montana ranch in 1986. He proceeded to buy 13 more ranches in five states across the Great Plains and southwest United States, according to his website.
And, starting in 1995, he bought land in Nebraska, too – a whole lot of it.
His original purchase was Spike Box Ranch. He then acquired nearly 500,000 acres total in the state, much of it in Cherry, Sheridan and Garden counties.
That meant that, at the peak, Turner owned an amount of Nebraska land more than double the size of Douglas County.
From the beginning, Turner’s ranches have largely focused on raising bison. And that focus has helped spur the remarkable comeback of the American bison, often referred to as the American buffalo.
In 1884, there were only 325 bison left in the U.S.
Today, there are roughly 430,000 – and roughly 10% of those are owned by Turner, according to the National Bison Association. His herds also make Nebraska the No. 2 state for bison, behind only South Dakota.
This ranching, far different from his neighbors, drew skepticism from people like Cindy Weller, who owns land next to Turner’s Spike Box Ranch.
Today, Weller, whose family has owned land here since the 19th century, says she has no issue with how Turner and his employees have run their ranch.
She does still believe that moneyed out-of-staters like Turner make it harder for regular Nebraska ranchers.
“It’s a burden when people with outside money come in and buy the land for higher than what you could actually support by just running a cow calf operation,” she said.
But those working to preserve the bison say Turner’s decades-long commitment has been a huge help.
Jim Matheson, the director of the National Bison Association and a longtime association employee, helped aid the 2020 creation of South Dakota State University’s Center of Excellence for Bison Studies. Turner has helped grow that program, Matheson said.
Shortly after Turner and family members created the Turner Institute of Ecoagriculture, it entered into a formal research agreement with the university.
And Turner has helped improve the fate of the bison by raising its profile, and also simply by raising them – even if his ranches raise them to slaughter.
“I know it seems weird that selling bison meat helps preserve them but it’s part of the process,” Matheson said.
Over the decades, Turner has faced an array of criticism in the Sandhills, complaints as trivial as the height of his ranches’ fences (they need to be taller to keep the bison in) to theories that he was trying to buy up all the Nebraska land over the Ogallala Aquifer.
In a 2008 interview with the Omaha World-Herald, Turner addressed those concerns.
“I’ve never sold any water rights to anyone and don’t intend to,” said Turner.
Dave Hutchinson, a longtime bison rancher near Rose, also points out that bison operations like Turner’s actually need less water than conventional cattle ranches.
“Bison require low stress management and don’t typically need much water,” he said.
And Turner appeared to be fending off another line of criticism – namely, that his land would eventually be given to an entity that wouldn’t pay property taxes – when he announced in 2021 that he had gifted 80,000 acres to the institute that bears his name.
“I believe that local property taxes provide essential support for services on which our ranchers and communities depend,” he said in a press release then. “The Institute will continue to pay its share of taxes to support the local communities.”
That’s a big promise for rural Nebraska counties who fund various services, including schools, in part through property taxes.
In Cherry County alone, Turner’s properties are valued at nearly $120 million, according to that county’s assessor’s office.
He paid more than $960,000 in property taxes to Cherry County this year.
Despite Turner’s assurances, some still worry what may happen once he donates his other properties to the nonprofit – and if his claims of not applying for a property tax exemption will hold once he’s gone.
“If it comes off the tax rolls, it indirectly means that property taxes are going to go up for everybody,” said State Sen. Tom Brewer, a Republican whose district includes Cherry County and others where Turner has long owned land. “But specifically in those counties where he has the big swaths of land.”
“We have some counties that could literally not make ends meet.”
There’s no law that legally binds Turner’s nonprofit to pay property taxes – though it’s unclear if the Turner Institute of Ecoagriculture would actually qualify for the tax exemption if it profits by selling bison meat.
It’s also unclear if the nonprofit would ever need or want to go against Turner’s wishes since, by definition, a nonprofit doesn’t need to maximize profits, said Paul Weitzel, associate law professor at the Nebraska College of Law.
But the fact remains: A nonprofit whose mission it is to research sustainable ranching could do more of that research if it saved millions in property tax payments each year.
Jessica Shoemaker, a professor of the Nebraska College of Law whose work focuses on agricultural sustainability, said that Turner could force the nonprofit to pay property taxes even after he dies based on the terms of the land transfers. But those terms tend to have an expiration date, she said.
“In general, a decedent can control what happens to his or her assets upon her death and for a somewhat shorter period of time after death, but not forever,” Shoemaker said.
Turner remains listed as the institute’s board chair. The board of directors consists entirely of his children and grandchildren.
Much apart from the discussion of property taxes, nearby landowners told the Flatwater Free Press that they will always pay attention to Turner’s Sandhills land – past his death and until their own.
“These farmers and ranchers here have a connection to the land,” said Hutchinson, the bison rancher. “It’s the families and the heritage of just owning it.”
FFP reporter Destiny Herbers contributed to this story. FFP reporter Yanqi Xu contributed to the data analysis used in this story.
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