New Patagonia film ‘Public Trust’ is a must-see for all Americans
After years of policy crafting, a widespread effort to privatize national lands is now underway
In Vail, we often take a passive view of the larger issues of the West. Perhaps you’ve caught a few headlines in recent years — Bears Ears, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Boundary Waters, Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt.
After reading two or three stories about shrinking boundaries of protected areas, and increased efforts to help the mining and oil and gas industries create new extraction projects, you may think a larger effort is underway to derive as much profit as possible from nationally managed lands.
Patagonia’s new film “Public Trust” reviews a few of the big news events over the last few years and connects the dots to form not only that conclusion, but another, more sweeping and terrifying thesis: After years of policy crafting, a widespread effort to privatize national lands is now fully underway.
The film makes clear who the perpetrators are — President Trump, Interior Secretaries Bernhardt and Zinke before him, and the policy groups who craft legislation to be worked into state and national lawmaking efforts. The heroes are a little less clear, with many of their conflicts of interest omitted.
President Obama is portrayed as an environmental hero for his designation of the Bears Ears National Monument, which was, indeed, one of the true environmental wins of his presidency. But Obama gets a pass on his overseeing of “a resurgence in U.S. oil and gas production on both private and public lands,” as reported by the Center for American Progress, which found that “Under Obama’s watch, oil production on federal lands was higher every year from 2009 through 2011 than it was from 2006 through 2008.”
There’s no mention of this in the film, no mention that Obama’s administration perpetrated some of the worst Endangered Species Act offenses on public lands prior to Trump. This is, perhaps, because the filmmakers had Trump to focus on, who has indeed been even worse on environmental policy.
The recreation industry also gets a pass — not surprisingly, being a Patagonia production — before the film even truly starts, listed on the “good” side of the public land user paradigm.
The film’s protagonist, journalist Hal Herring, gives a laundry list of efforts underway to support the suspicion that the great socialist experiment of the West will soon be dissolved into a capitalist concoction.
“There are battles raging all over the country, where ever there is public land,” Herring says. “It’s all happening in plain sight, it’s at county commissioners meetings, it’s in the halls of Congress, it’s in your local newspapers, and most of us don’t really see it. You go down the Thompson Divide roadless area of Colorado, they’ve been fighting over that for 20 years. Uranium leasing around the Grand Canyon, gold mining right outside of Yellowstone National Park, the absolute destruction of Everglades National Park due to industrial agriculture upstream, these are also some of the last untouched and functioning ecosystems in the world.”
But the big news stories the filmmakers focus on are the massive shrinking of the Bears Ears National Monument, the efforts to put an industrial-scale copper mine near the Boundary Waters Wilderness, and the effort to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Arctic issue is covered exceptionally well, with the filmmakers attending a town hall meetings in Alaska and sharing the story of the Gwich’in people.
“How many families do you know who are living on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?” asks one person, rhetorically, at the meeting. “We’re gonna die here.”
State control = auction block
Herring, in the film, says the turning point in his career came in 1999, when he came across a study called “how and why to privatize all federal lands now,” from the Property and Environment Research Center. He said he realized that the effort to move national control to state control would result in privatization of public lands after a conversation with the state budget directors’ office in Nevada, which told him if the state were given the federal lands in Nevada, “we would have to put them on the auction block as fast as possible.”
But the film stops at state control, which allows their villains — those advocating for the United States to relinquish ownership of public lands in favor of more local governments — to continue to make the argument that the control should go even more local. There’s plenty of public land users who support this idea, but the filmmakers decided against showcasing ranchers who would love to see the Bureau of Land Management abolished so a board of three county commissioners, their friends and neighbors, could be their leaseholders instead.
Cattle ranching in the West is itself an extractive industry occurring on national lands which destroys native vegetation, damages soils and stream banks, and contaminate waterways with fecal waste, and justifies the existence of the notorious Wildlife Services coyote killing squads.
The film mentions the Sagebrush Rebellion, but fails to detail the legacy of the illegal and ecosystem destroying activities the rebellion created. An almost sympathetic view of the perpetrators of the Sagebrush Rebellion is presented, portraying them as unwilling participants in a larger effort to relinquish federal control of public lands.
“The Sagebrush Rebellion became a facade for other interests working behind the scenes to gain access to the resources on public lands,” Herring says.
The ranchers showcased in the film are instead presented as guardians of the public lands, and the harm they inflict through cattle running is ignored.
After Tuesday’s showing of “Public Trust” at the Comanche Drive-In in Buena Vista, I got a chance to talk to some of the filmmakers about their portrayal of ranching in the film. They told me they had produced an entire segment on rogue ranchers’ occupation of the 2016 Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which they had considered using, but ultimately left out. That effort was led by Amann Bundy, son of activist rancher Cliven Bundy.
By leaving characters like the Bundys out, they fail to follow the public lands discussion to its inevitable conclusion: Militia groups, armed to the teeth, refusing to comply with orders from the federal government which are based on an effort to take better care of the land.
If it were anyone else, this would be a larger point of contention, but director David Byars’ most recent film before “Public Trust” is an entire documentary about the armed standoff at Malheur. That film, “No Man’s Land,” would be recommended alongside this one.
Another Bundy standoff — the 2014 armed confrontation in southeastern Nevada — traces its origins to 1993 with the BLM telling Bundy to run less cows. I wonder how the ranchers showcased as heroes in “Public Trust” would react to similar orders? The most interesting part? For all their villainizing of Trump and the obvious partisanship on display — omitting much of the environmental destruction that occurred on public lands during the Obama administration — the filmmakers admitted to me that some of the ranchers glorified in “Public Trust” were they themselves outspoken Trump supporters.
One of the ranchers depicted in the film “had a big Trump flag out at his ranch,” filmmaker Jeremy Hunter Rubingh told me. The flag does not appear in the film.
Aside from that bone of contention, “Public Lands” is the best movie I’ve seen in 2020, and that’s not just because it’s the only movie I’ve seen on the big screen. (Can’t recommend the Comanche Drive-In in Buena Vista enough.) I really enjoyed the film and would recommend it as a must-see for all Americans, if for nothing else, to better understand what the concept of public lands means.
And I especially recommend the film to everyone living here in the Vail area, where we tend to think of public lands disputes as conflicts between different recreational users. This film shows us that while we’re squabbling over uphill ski access and if National Forest Roads being open to ATVs along with dirt bikes, we could yet in our lifetimes be fighting for any access at all to those lands.
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