National Treasures Plundered in ‘Public Trust’

The sale and despoliation of American wilderness today is the subject of the infuriating new documentary.

David Garrett Byars’s beautifully-shot Public Trust, exec-produced by Robert Redford and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, is about a multi-front effort to sic the drillers and the miners on our national reserves. These politicians and speculators are the descendents of the kind of men they used to call “spoilers” in the frontier days.

Byars surveys some of the pressure points. He shows, by their startling contrast, what riches we still have: the canyonlands of Utah, the raw north coast of Alaska, and the vast lake waters in remote Minnesota. Byars collaborates here with editor and writer Lyman Smith. 

Our guide to the pillaging is one Hal Herring. Herring is an outdoorsman turned journalist, who has bylines in the libertarian-minded Economist and the firearm-lovers blog, Range 365; he is currently a contributing editor at Field & Stream. As averse as Herring may be to governmental overreach, he is equally dismayed by capitalism run amok.

Herring describes what he sees on his cross-country journeys: “An enormous, well-heeled movement to take lands away from the people and change our country forever.” Evidence here suggests he’s not exaggerating.

In Utah, two-thirds of which is administered by various federal agencies, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition worked for years to have their lands protected. President Obama made it official, designating 1.3 million acres in southwestern Utah as a national monument.

It’s an indescribably glorious place, a remote desert of soaring mesas and red canyons, and sacred sites that  archeologists are only beginning to study. The Hopi/Navajo filmmaker Angelo Bala describes the fine petroglyphs there as “Our Library of Congress.” During his first year in office, President Trump ordered the monument downsized by about 85 percent, clearing a path for mining and oil exploration projects.

In Minnesota, we learn of the attempts of Twin Metals, a Chilean company, to open a copper mine on the perimeter of the Boundary Waters. It’s a trackless lake system dotted with countless islets, where thousands go fishing and canoe camping.

Mining has been a big part of Minnesota’s prosperity — and the land has the scars to prove it. Still, this pristine area is one burst slurry dam away from a major eco-catastrophe. Such a calamity happened in a similar dam, built by the same engineers whom Twin Metals is proposing to use on this project. In British Columbia, thousands of gallons of tailings were dumped into the Fraser River. The price tag on the cleanup was $40 billion.

Mineral mining in the West is one long history of grabbing and running. Mining companies go bankrupt, leaving the taxpayers to fix what their spoilers fouled. There are 161,000 abandoned mining sites in the Western United States, which have cost the EPA $50 billion. Still there’s more to be spent. Take one particularly expensive Superfund site, the Berkeley Pit near Butte, Montana. It’s the devil’s answer to Crater Lake, whose mile-wide bright-blue acidic waters lure in unwary birds and cook them.  

This isn’t all about Trump, who shows up at about an hour into the film.  His appointment of secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke seemed like a moderate choice to some. At least he was from Montana, noted local rancher Juanita Vero. Later Zinke, whom Herring describes as “a walking conflict of interest” had to resign because of his coziness with the oil leasers.  

As for the president, he claimed only a vague idea of what’s out there. He’s seen in an interview talking about the time an oil man asked him about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Trump recalled, shrugging in that endearing way of his, “ANWR? I dunno, who cares?” Once he was advised how much oil was there, Trump began to care, and got ready to carry out Sarah Palin’s 2008 election mantra “Drill, baby, drill and mine, baby, mine!” 

For most of a century, public land protection was a bipartisan effort. The Republican Theodore Roosevelt prevented miners from tearing into the Grand Canyon. Richard Nixon formed the EPA in the days when Cleveland’s Cuyahoga river was so polluted it literally burst into flames. Say what you will about Nixon, but the man liked a clean beach. Here we see Republican ranchers and ex-Minnesota legislatures sounding the alarm about sales to drillers and miners. Ranchers Juanita Vero and Heidi Redd, who rent their grazing land from the Bureau of Land Management, consider themselves as temporary custodians of that open range. This is a moderate movie. There’s nothing in Public Trust that’s even half as controversial as ecological writer Edward Abbey’s proposal to get “bawling, poop-smeared” cattle out of the West for good.

In the mid 1970s the so-called “Sagebrush Rebellion” broke out, led by Western landowners sick of ecological legislation. They found a voice in Ronald Reagan. Warming to his audience, Reagan said “environmentalism is the greatest threat in 200 years.” This “evolution of anger into political theater,” in Herring’s words, was the beginning of a backlash that continues today. Post 9/11, the ideal of “energy independence” became the half-truth behind which drillers could step up their efforts and make beaucoup bucks. 

The Alaskan sequence is the most infuriating. The Gwich’in people made their home near the Arctic Ocean, following the caribou herd on the Porcupine River and living off of them. The Alaskan wilderness is described as “our Serengeti” — the caribou migration almost as dramatic as the wildebeests treks across southern Africa, to say nothing of the grizzlies and the last remaining polar bears ruling the tundra.

Decades ago, the Last Frontier became addicted to oil money, despite Koyaanisqatsi-level eco-disasters, such as the Exxon Valdez spill. Big Oil keeps the Gwich’in’s homeland in their crosshairs, as oil company mouthpieces such as Rep. Don Young claim that drilling the ANWR is basically as inconsequential as plucking a hair from your head. Contrast Young’s on-camera clowning with the Gwich’in’s Bernadette Demientieff, a spokesperson of great moral authority.

Public Trust is as full of well-photographed environmental rapture as a Disney nature film. But it has far more of a point, and much more of a reason to exist. There are some glimmers of hope. As activist and outdoorsman Land Tawney says, “Conservation is a blood sport.” Tawney describes how he used social media to lead the charge against the Los Gatos-born Congressman Jason Chaffee, who proposed to auction off 3 million acres of Utah. 

Tawney claims he didn’t really understand what a hashtag was when he spread #keepitpublic all over the Internet. The angry reaction to Chaffee’s scheme made the Congressman publicly back down, after posing on Facebook with a deer rifle and a dog to show his cred as a hunter. The dog was a lap dog, crestfallen looking, depressed at being in the open air instead of a nice warm living room. As Tawney says, here is the proverbial dog that won’t hunt. 

At this point the defeats are more plentiful as the victories. Public Trust contains some mind-reeling material. How do we stop the barrage of Senate bills trying to privatize our national heritage? How does one quantify the value of a mountain range or an undammed river, or a valley that hasn’t yet been ripped open for uranium mining? What fate will fall on these open lands where, as Herring says, “You can be about as free as a person can be today”?

Will they be spoiled forever, sold off as game parks, theme parks, resorts and golf courses? At this point it is unclear, although Woody Guthrie turns up on the soundtrack with his famous song reminding us who actually owns this land.

Public Trust will be available to stream on YouTube on Friday, Sept. 25.

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