Stealing Ground

Filmmakers working on public lands find commonthreads in divisive issue

When a trio of college friends from Salt Lake City set out to make a film about legislative efforts to transfer federal lands to state management, they titled it The Heist, expecting to document a theft from the public. But they didn’t want to poll only outdoor enthusiasts, so they reached out to other industries that rely on public land: logging, ranching, oil and gas development, mining and outdoor recreation.

"In the outdoor community, it's a lot of us-versus-them, and we wanted to take a different approach," says Phil Hessler, producer and co-founder of WZRD Media, the production company for the film.

As their reporting has taken them to the homes of loggers, Native Americans, conservationists, miners and ranchers across the country, the narrative that's developed has become increasingly nuanced—as in, it's complicated.

"If you put these people behind a screen and just listened to what they're saying, a lot of times, you couldn't tell what side they're on," says Galen Knowles, director/co-founder of WZRD Media. "Both sides feel like something is being taken from them."

We're talking at Outdoor Retailer, the outdoor industry trade show, minutes before Knowles and his co-filmmakers, Hessler and Zeppelin Zeerip, screen a teaser for The Heist. The audience includes a DC lobbyist who will ask if a showing in the Capitol might help ease the increasingly partisan divide over public lands. It wasn't always that way, of course. Historically, conservation and environmental protection have bridged the aisle; the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency came into being under President Richard Nixon (to attract young voters, but still).

The journey the WZRD crew has taken has crisscrossed the country and the political spectrum. They speak fondly of Terry Tempest Williams, calling the conservationist author and anti-oil and gas development activist "a homie" after filming her discussing land management with her father, who made a career in the oil and gas industry. So, too, is their affection unbound for an Oregon logging family, a husband and wife who have fostered nearly 50 kids over the decades.

"I think public lands have the potential to be a uniting force in a divided country," Knowles says. "In the end, we all do want to protect the land, but how that looks is different."

Reporting is still underway, with the film expected out late in 2018. Knowles and Zeerip will soon head to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, another of the ongoing outreach efforts in reporting that also saw the filmmakers, in their Patagonia flannels and Keen shoes, visiting a rally supporting the Bundy takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Knowles also joined in the press corps following Department of Interior Ryan Zinke's tour of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. He saw the former Montana senator visibly moved by some of those landscapes, but the trip also left Knowles with a sense that designating these areas as monuments but failing to provide financial support or infrastructure for the flood of tourists that will ensue may not be the best way to protect them.

For the sagebrush sea, Zeerip argues, ranching may be the only way to derive economic value from those acres—when proper rangeland management practices are deployed that see cattle moved around every few days to prevent overgrazing. So, too, can logging translate to healthy forest management, he says.

"Mining, oil and gas—that is a boom-and-bust economy no matter how you look at it," Zeerip says. "There's a hard line on energy. They come in, take, and leave."

How to handle these lands is up this week with Zinke's recent visit to Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument near Las Cruces, one of the 27 monuments the Trump administration is reviewing this year to consider rescinding or resizing. The secretary toured the peaks by helicopter; held a closed roundtable with stakeholders including elected officials, ranchers, academics and border security experts; hiked with veterans; met with the Mescalero Apache, Fort Sill Apache and Friends of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks; and rode horses with Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall.

Most of those events were closed to press, and Zinke did not join a public town hall meeting on the monument review that was held during his visit. After hiking with the secretary, members of the Vet Voice Foundation urged him to leave the monument intact.

"Our community worked for over a decade to protect the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks area, and it should not be undone in a mere 120 days," the statement reads. "We were discouraged to learn about his interest in shrinking the national monument, especially before meeting with diverse stakeholders today, and after not attending the community town hall last night."

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