New Robert Redford-produced documentary highlights critical struggle over public lands
Park Record contributor
Executive producers: Robert Redford, Yvon Chouinard, Alex Lowther, Monika McClure, Josh Nielsen
Director: David Garrett Byars
Release date: Sept. 25, 2020
Utah audiences will recognize some of their most treasured landscapes in the about-to-be-released documentary “Public Trust.” They’ll also see several familiar faces, though not in such a complimentary light.
Utah Congressman Rob Bishop and former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, along with Sen. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch are among the most vocal antagonists in the film’s urgent plea for action to save America’s rivers, forests, grassland parks and monuments.
In its opening scenes, “Public Trust” soars over a diverse panorama of America’s dramatic public lands and recaps the country’s early passion for preserving those national treasures. But as the arc of history curves toward the present, the film’s director, David Garrett Byars, shows how vulnerable they are to current economic and environmental threats.
To illustrate what he sees as an imminent, nationwide crisis, Byars trains his lens on three recent, high-profile controversies: establishment of the Bears Ears National Monument, congressional legislation to expand oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and an application for a copper mine adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The stories are knitted together with a common thread, the Alabama-twanged voice of veteran environmental journalist Hal Herring who laces up a pair of well-worn work boots to walk among the communities at the heart of those political battles.
Herring, who grew up roaming the outdoors in the South and then the West, says, “The idea of public lands wasn’t really in our vocabulary. But the scale of the freedom — we understood that … so there is a very personal blood stake in this game for me.”
In his younger days, Herring parlayedhis love of hunting, fishing and climbing into writing for outdoor sports magazines but, in 1999, he experienced an epiphany. He stumbled on a research paper, backed by a raft of well-funded coal, oil and gas producers, titled: “How and Why to Privatize Federal Lands.” That, he says, triggered his career as an investigative environmental journalist.
“What that did for me was to declare, once and for all, that the American public land was absolutely in the crosshairs of the wealthiest people in the world.”
In response, Herring says he traded his shotgun for an Apple computer and set out to warn the American public. “I wanted them to know what we have, how we got it and what’s at stake.”
“Public Trust” follows Herring’s quest to illustrate how critical the debate over public lands has become. The first stop is in Utah’s San Juan County, where Native American and environmental activists have been engaged in a fierce battle to protect nearly 1.4 million acres from oil, gas and uranium interests.
The well-publicized conflict is familiar to most local residents, but according to Herring and Navajo scholar Angelo Baca, the issue has taken on new urgency.
In an especially cringe-worthy moment, Rep. Bishop is seen declaring, “People say public lands belong to all the people. Well, I’d like them to tell me which part is mine because I want to sell it.”
In Round 1, Bears Ears supporters prevailed. In 2016, President Barack Obama used his executive power to declare the disputed acreage as a national monument, and environmental activists celebrated a brief reprieve. Their optimism, though, would soon be dashed.
As the film continues, Herring also shows public lands activists making headway in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the fragile Boundary Waters wilderness where energy industry interests are courting politicians to loosen federal regulations.
But the appearance of a Trump-emblazoned helicopter at the Capitol, in January of 2017, and newsreel footage of Ryan Zinke’s ascendance as secretary of the Interior, signal that the activists’ gains would be short lived. Herring, clearly discouraged, ticks off a list of Trump administration bills aimed at rolling back environmental protections and putting public lands back in the crosshairs of private interests.
In the film, Utah leaders, including Bishop, Lee, Gov. Gary Herbert and Rep. Chris Stewart cheer as Trump declares his intention to reverse federal overreach by slashing the size of Bears Ears National Monument by more than 80%.
“Public Trust” does not offer a happy ending but suggests, instead, that the ultimate outcome will be up to the citizens who get engaged. In the film’s closing scenes Herring proclaims: “You only have a right to what you are willing to fight for.” As aerial footage of the nation’s majestic landscapes fades to the credits, the filmmaker offers this reminder:
“Three quarters of voters in the western United States believe public lands should be protected. The entire House of Representatives and 35 of 100 Senate seats are up for election in 2020.”
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