Report From Planet Ted "Several people close to Mr. Turner said he planned to devote himself to private philanthropy, his many ranches around the world, his chain of bison-meat restaurants, and his private film company." --New York Times, Jan. 30, 2003
By Jerry Useem

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Add one more to the list of things His Effervescence is likely to pursue in retirement: a singular crusade to stimulate the economy, to boost an American icon, and perhaps even to lift his own sagging net worth. It's about buffalo bills. Ted Turner wants the U.S. Treasury to reissue a 100-year-old $10 note starring his favorite animal, the American buffalo. "He's really written me about this," former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said at an event last fall. "I saw him first at a dinner, and he raised this issue with me. I think he told me he'd buy a billion dollars' worth...and retire them."

The object of Turner's preoccupation is a $10 bill, issued between 1901 and 1925, that features a lovingly rendered Bison americanus--one of the few animals to upstage Presidents and statesmen on the front of U.S. legal tender--flanked by portraits of the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. On April 10, 1901, the New York Times called it "as artistic as any [bill] that has been issued in many years." Today collectors pay up to $5,000 to possess one.

"I bought a couple of the bills," says Turner, who sometimes carries one in his wallet and owns a necktie festooned with images of it. "They cost $3,000 each. And I told Paul O'Neill they cost a nickel to print. And if you printed a billion dollars' worth, they'd go out of circulation almost immediately because collectors would buy them. And you'd create a billion dollars of capital."

O'Neill, no stranger to unusual economic theories, left office without acting on the idea. But Turner says the timing would be perfect: "It's the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark. That's a really big deal."

The original bill is not without controversy. Most numismatists agree that it was timed to commemorate the centennial of Lewis and Clark's expedition across the American West, but the animal depicted on it didn't roam the open plains. The creature in the portrait was Black Diamond of the Bronx Zoo, a 1,500-pound castoff from the Barnum & Bailey circus whose sloping shoulders and depressive demeanor caused his zookeeper to rate him a "sad failure." Or at least that's the orthodoxy. "I always thought it was Black Diamond on the note," says Arthur Friedberg, author of Paper Money of the United States and president of the Coin and Currency Institute, "and then the Pablo revisionists came to the fore." This renegade school insists it was actually Pablo, a star attraction at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and eventual model for a 30-cent stamp, who sat for the bill's portrait.

If Black Diamond's depiction is now a matter of uncertainty, his depression was certainly reflective of the condition of his species, whose numbers had plummeted from 60 million to fewer than 1,000 by the turn of the century. "The brush that bison had with extinction, I think, has always resonated with Ted," says Russ Miller, general manager of Turner's 14 ranches. "They're survivors. They are strong spirited. We have a saying on the ranches--you can get a bison to do anything it wants to do."

If feelings of kinship are a motivation for the famously headstrong CNN founder, they aren't the only one. "What's in it for me?" Turner asks. "Nothing! Well, nothing except collaterally I promote bison." He's the nation's largest breeder of them, with some 30,000 head roaming his 1.8 million acres in Montana and five other Western states. Lately the price of bison meat has been roaming deep into bear territory, plummeting even further (85%) over the past two years than the price of Turner's AOL shares. (His offer to buy $1 billion of the notes may no longer stand, as he is already hard-pressed to deliver on his last billion-dollar gesture, a pledge to the United Nations. Asked whether the organization would accept the balance in $10 buffalo increments, a UN spokeswoman expressed confusion.) In part to spur demand, Turner has been expanding his chain of restaurants, called Ted's Montana Grill, which feature 20 varieties of bison burgers, bison strip loin, bison short ribs, roast bison French dip, and a bison head above the bar. So would buffalo money be, in effect, free advertising? "He owns 30,000 of the [nation's] 300,000 bison," interjects his companion, Frederique D'Arragon, "so he wouldn't just be promoting his bison, but the whole industry."

One hurdle: At seven inches by three inches, the buffalo bill wouldn't fit in today's wallets. (The current 6 1/8-by 2 3/5-inch standard wasn't adopted until 1928.) In Turner's favor, on the other hand, is international precedent: Belarus's 100-ruble note features a local bison variant known as the zubr, while Chad, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have all put water buffalo on their paper currency. And if O'Neill's successor at Treasury, John Snow, has been silent on bison issues, the animal has found favor elsewhere in the administration. At a White House taste-off to determine the menu for a 2001 state dinner for Mexican President Vicente Fox, pepita-crusted bison went head-to-head with two beefsteak dishes and received a decisive "This is it" from George W. Bush.

In any case, Turner wouldn't be the first to link the elevation of this American symbol with its consumption. Just two years after Black Diamond achieved immortality in metallic form--this time posing for the famous 1913 buffalo nickel--he was sold to a meatpacking company, cut into steaks, and served at Delmonico's Restaurant in Manhattan. His mounted head was last seen at a currency collectors' convention.