Environmentalists take a look at dams | ParkRecord.com

Environmentalists take a look at dams

Greg Marshall, Of the Record staff

Before Scott Ligare paddled the glacial waters of the Marsyangdi River in Nepal, hurled down the White Nile in Uganda and floated through the fingers of the Siang River in India to make an eco-thriller about some of the last unbridled rivers on Earth, he was just a kid growing up in Park City.

Ligare, now 31, learned how to kayak in the Weber River. A former ski racer, he attended the Winter School and spent the cold months buried in powder and the spring chest-deep in whitewater.

Everything in Ligare’s young life has flowed from his love of water. After high school, Ligare moved to northern California, earned a degree in environmental engineering from the University of California at Acadia and traveled to South and Central America, Eastern Europe and Africa to kayak. But it wasn’t until the fall of 2007 that Ligare and his girlfriend, Katie Scott, undertook their most ambitious adventure yet: a yearlong expedition across three continents to explore rivers in danger of being dammed.

Ligare and Scott aren’t the first adventurers to ride rapids in far-off places, but they worry they may be the last.

That’s why they made the whitewater documentary "The Last Descent," a 50-minute look at some of the world’s pristine rivers, and the large-scale hydroelectric projects that threaten to displace millions, flood gorges deeper than the Grand Canyon, and make kayaking next to impossible in them. The film premiered at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival in Nevada City, Calif., in mid-January and won the People’s Choice Award. "The point of the film isn’t that all dams are bad," Ligare explained. "But going in and damming everything isn’t the right solution. Some rivers should be protected."

The film starts in Nepal, and travels to India and Uganda before Ligare, Scott and friends bring the experience closer to home by kayaking in the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, a product of the first dam in California.

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During a building craze in the 1940s and 50’s, engineers sought to harness water to power the energy grid and supply drinking water. Today, dams choke rivers and tributaries that flow from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. These projects made life possible, but now environmentalists are pushing to tear down some of the monoliths and restore natural topography, Ligare said.

The film pauses to interview villagers who will lose their homes, and in some cases their livelihoods, if planned dams are constructed. "A lot of these dams are political," Ligare said. "It’s complicated, but in Uganda, the electricity isn’t even needed. It’s a money-making scheme." Some of the villagers in Nepal had never seen white people before, let alone digital equipment, but they remained hospitable, even inquisitive, about the project. Dam workers and government officials were more wary of the Westerners, Ligare said.

The push to build dams has shifted to developing countries like India, where the World Bank recently approved for 168 dams in the largely untouched Arunachel Pradesh. The developing world and the West are passing each other going in opposite directions, according to Ligare. "Developing countries are following our footsteps of building dams and we’re looking to live sustainably," he said.

Making the movie

Ligare and Scott visited the Outdoor Retailers’ Show in 2007 with nothing more than an idea. The two had never made a movie, let alone an ecological epic, but they made the pitch anyway. They garnered a surprising amount of support.

With the backing of a handful of sponsors, they left in October 2008 with five high-definition handheld cameras, sleeping bags, pads, first aid kits and kayaks. They carried more than 80 pounds in each kayak, enough to last for eight-day expeditions. Some of the places they traveled were accessible only by kayak. They had to backpack days in other places to get to running water. The rivers were wide and fast-moving, but filming slowed progress. Ligare, a professional photographer, shot hundreds of hours of footage. "It adds another element to the whole expedition," Ligare said. "There were logistical issues just getting the equipment where we needed. I think, overall, we were pretty lucky."

During one hike in Nepal, Ligare and Scott left a camera at their camp site. They returned the next day and recovered the camera from a villager. Friends joined them for legs of the project, like Park City resident Seth Warren, but only Ligare and Scott made the entire trek. Neither of them had ever made a film before "The Last Descent." "We had to learn how to use the cameras as we were shooting," Ligare said.

Marlene Ligare hadn’t seen her son’s film before it screened at the Scenic Film Festival. "I was blown away by how good it was," she said. "It was so good. The cinematography was so good."

So was the applause.

The kayak trip wasn’t the first time Scott’s outdoor endeavors have taken him far from home. During the trip, Scott stayed in touch with his family through sporadic emails. Marlene said she learned a long time ago not to worry about her son. She won’t have to put her patience into practice for a while. The first-time filmmakers have no immediate plans for another project.

"The Last Descent" goes on sale next month. For more information, visit http://www.thelastdescent.com .