A decade ago, billionaire bison rancher Ted Turner said his appetite for buying more grazing land in Nebraska was likely satisfied.
But now the state's largest private landowner, and second-largest individual landowner in the U.S., has surprised some people by purchasing another Sand Hills ranch, putting his holdings in Nebraska past the half-million-acre mark.
Turner's ranching enterprise recently bought the 15,055-acre Kime Ranch, a Sand Hills spread surrounded on three sides by other ranches owned by the founder of CNN, including the first property he bought in Nebraska 23 years ago, the Spikebox Ranch.
With the purchase, that ranch now encompasses 141,149 acres, and his seven holdings in Nebraska total 506,935 acres, the Omaha World-Herald reported. That is area more than twice the size of Douglas County.
The 2 million acres of land he owns in the U.S. ranks Turner just behind John Malone, Liberty Media's chairman, as the nation's largest private landowner.
The new Nebraska deal has renewed questions about the future of land owned by Turner, 80, who recently announced that he was suffering from Lewy body dementia, the same disease that afflicted actor Robin Williams in the last years of his life.
Will the land become a huge series of wildlife parks? A gift to a wildlife organization? Would it go off the tax rolls, leaving other ranches to shoulder local property taxes?
"I think there's a lot of people who wonder what he's going to do with it," said former State Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis, who owns land adjacent to one of Turner's six Nebraska ranches. "People are not enthused about it being owned by a quasi-public entity. Most people would prefer that it remains in private hands."
A spokesman for Turner Enterprises said that his boss is planning what he's always planned — to create a "conservation land trust" with his children that would ensure that his properties in the U.S. and Argentina would "remain safeguarded in perpetuity."
Whether that means that property taxes would continue to be paid on his Nebraska properties was unclear because family trusts can be structured to keep land on the tax rolls or off — if, for instance, it was deeded to a nonprofit foundation with an educational purpose. The Turner spokesman, Phillip Evans, did not respond to a direct emailed question of whether the land would remain on the tax rolls, and did not respond to later emails seeking clarification.
Evans did say that the recent purchase is not a signal that Turner has entered a new era of land buying.
The Kime Ranch, he said, sits between two existing Turner ranches, and purchasing it will increase the efficiencies of both the Spikebox and McMurtrey ranches for the Turner ranching operation.
The ranches nationwide raise between 45,000 and 50,000 bison, supplying the 45 Ted's Montana Grill restaurants operated by Turner. In 2010, Turner closed his last remaining Nebraska restaurant, which had been renamed "Ted's Nebraska Grill" to reflect that it was serving beef steaks as well as bison. It was located near 136th Street and West Dodge Road in Omaha.
Despite his health, Turner remains active in managing his ranches and the restaurants, as well as his charitable foundation, and co-chairing a foundation that works to prevent nuclear and other catastrophic threats, according to Evans.
He considers himself "semi-retired," he said, allowing managers to run his enterprises.
"While he isn't able to visit as much as he'd like, he maintains close relationships with his Nebraska ranch managers," Evans said. "And the Turner family continues to use these ranches for recreational activities."
Turner paid $725 an acre for his latest ranch, which is slightly higher than the going rate in that area of the Sand Hills, according to Cherry County Assessor Betty Daugherty.
Shane Kime, one of the owners, said he could not comment on the purchase, but indicated that his family was seeking to expand their ranching operation and recently purchased a larger spread, the Red Deer Ranch, east of U.S. 83 in Cherry County.
The Kime Ranch was also known as "the end of the road" ranch, because it sits at the end of a narrow, sandy road that extends south from the Snake River and the McKelvie National Forest.
Kime said that when he was in high school in the 1980s, The World-Herald wrote that he had one of the state's longest commutes to school, 72 miles. His family boarded him in Valentine during the week to avoid the long daily drive, he said.
Duane Kime, who is Shane Kime's cousin and owns 2,360 acres of ranch land completely surrounded by Turner's ground, said he was invited to a large banquet at the Spikebox Ranch seven or eight years ago hosted by Turner and his family for neighbors.
Kime said he asked Turner directly if he ever planned to sell water rights on his Nebraska ranches, which sit on some of the thickest formations of groundwater from the Ogallala Aquifer. Turner said no.
"I've never sold any water rights to anyone and don't intend to," Turner told The World-Herald in an interview in 2008.
Kime said the main impact of Turner's bison operations is reducing the already sparse population of the area. Bison require less management than cattle, and Kime estimated that 20 ranch families have been displaced by the land purchases.
But Turner has also won praise for enhancing wildlife habitat and protecting threatened species on his properties and for providing grants for arts councils, libraries and 4-H groups in the Sand Hills. He has sold off some of his land in recent years, including a barrier island in South Carolina purchased for a state park and 43,000 acres in Oklahoma sold to the Osage Indian Tribe.
Many Sand Hills residents, though, wonder what will happen to his remaining lands after he and his children are gone, according to Jim Ducey, who has studied bird life on Turner's properties.
Maybe, he said, that's when the land will be deeded to some wildlife group.
"What's going to happen? Nobody knows that," Ducey said.
Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com