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"Public Trust" Is A Film About America's Natural Heritage That Will Rile You

Patagonia made a film about America's greatest natural asset—our public lands—and it is raising a ruckus. We interview the Montana journalist who appears in it

The Sheenjek River flows from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, home to the largest migratory caribou herd left on earth and lot of Arctic species whose own survival and habitat is threatened by warming conditions caused by climate change which itself is caused by the burning of fossil fuels.  Photo courtesy Alexis Bonogofsky for the US Fish and Wildlife Service
The Sheenjek River flows from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, home to the largest migratory caribou herd left on earth and lot of Arctic species whose own survival and habitat is threatened by warming conditions caused by climate change which itself is caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Photo courtesy Alexis Bonogofsky for the US Fish and Wildlife Service
Woody Guthrie sang the trope “this land is your land.”  America’s public lands, well more than 600 million acres in all, have been called one of the greatest expressions of democracy in the world. 

Why? Because by belonging to citizens of the country they are held in public trust to be stewarded for the benefit of people and wildlife that call them home.

Over successive generations, members of Congress from both sides of the political aisle have passed laws not only intended to improve access and protect those lands from all-out plunder but codes give citizens an opportunity to scrutinize land management decisions, comment and even demand that government release documents pertaining to who is calling the shots.

But today, center of right politicians on Capitol Hill and groups that have previously existed at the radical edge of public discourse have moved to undo decades of environmental protection. Some have openly advocated for the divestment of federal lands into state control while members of the Administration see increased fossil fuel production in the West, coastal areas and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as a way to not only become energy independent but yield enough output to rival Saudi Arabia. 

This year there’s been a documentary that’s been made by Patagonia Films and its viewing has gone viral. More than a million people have watched it in the last month alone. Public Trust features the perspective of a Montana journalist, Hal Herring, in a narrative that extends from the desert Southwest to Arctic Plain in far northern Alaska; (a place that has a connection to Greater Yellowstone, for creating and protecting ANWR—pronounced An-wahr— was a lifelong cause of the Murie clan in Jackson Hole).

While Guthrie’s lyric holds truth and inspiration, it is also fraught with irony for millions of Americans do not realize that these lands belong to them.

Biases divulged: Herring and I have been friends for a few decades and we’ve discussed issues of the day, expressing our frustration at how mainstream journalism often does not get at the heart of many issues in the West.  

Moreover, Patagonia has been a supporter of Mountain Journal and our mission of providing investigative journalism and analysis that leads to a more informed public, better decision-making and holds those affecting the wild character of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to account. Let it be stated for the record that Patagonia has never suggested a story that MoJo ought to cover. 

Saying that, we think many of you will find Public Trust: The Fight For America's Public Lands to be enlightening. Recently, we conducted this interview with Herring. See it below. As an added bonus, you can view the award-winning documentary free in its entirety by clicking on the link below.

TODD WILKINSON:  How would you characterize the premise for this film and perhaps elaborate on why it is resonating so much with Americans, particularly those citizens who are completely unaware that they are stakeholders in public lands?

HAL HERRING:  There is a widespread and carefully cultivated ruse—disseminated by plutocrats and their minions—that the “federal government can’t do nothing right.” Well, the system of public lands are living, thriving proof that that is simply not true. While laws too are an imminently fallible as any human construction, you can add a series of public interest laws—the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Wilderness Act, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and so on and on and on—that build on the argument that public lands and environmental laws exist for the good of the people.

However, the existence of these spectacular lands and waters poses a threat to some of the worst energies in our nation today—people and movements, left and right, that work relentlessly to convince us that our nation is hopelessly broken, has never offered anything but corruption and venality. Again, I would argue the opposite. Basically, the existence of American public lands is rock-solid evidence that we’ve done some things very very right, and that we have bountiful hopes that we can continue to do some very important things right in the future.  

TW: You have been a lifelong hunter and angler. You moved West because you realized how public lands gave you and your family opportunities to pursue your outdoor passions in ways that did not exist in your native state of Alabama. With this film and your close association with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and other conservation organizations, have you shifted from role of journalist to advocate or activist, like Rick Bass and others have done? Public Lands has elevated your profile.

HERRING: I never wanted to a be a public figure of any kind. I am not an activist. I just happened to have been covering this one subject for more than twenty years, and knew something about it.  I 100 percent reject the idea that I’ve moved from journalist to activist. There really is a well-funded movement to take over the American public lands. The Republican platform really does state that our public lands should be privatized. Utah politicians really do introduce legislation to get rid of some of our most iconic public lands, and Congresspersons from across the US actually do vote for these bills. 

There is a group called the American Lands Council that does nothing but advocate for the states to take over public lands, which would then be sold off —that group was headed by a Utah legislator and land developer, and is now headed by Montana legislator Jennifer Fielder. And on and on….this is happening, right now.  When you find out about that, and understand that, is it activism to reveal it?  It is a ridiculous, ugly idea that an investigative reporter, when he or she finds out something that could have terrible consequences for their nation, continues to report on that subject as if it were a fifty-fifty, he-said, she-said event.  
From the high flanks of Yellowstone, America's first national park, and looking eastward for many dozens of miles across the Shoshone National Forest, which began as the country's first timberland reserve, public lands are the foundation for ecological health in the Greater Yellowstone region.  And, carefully stewarded, they have proved to be a powerful engine for the regional economy as other parts of America become fragmented by human development.  Many of the mountain ridge lines you see in this photo are protected by Congressionally-designated Wilderness. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
From the high flanks of Yellowstone, America's first national park, and looking eastward for many dozens of miles across the Shoshone National Forest, which began as the country's first timberland reserve, public lands are the foundation for ecological health in the Greater Yellowstone region. And, carefully stewarded, they have proved to be a powerful engine for the regional economy as other parts of America become fragmented by human development. Many of the mountain ridge lines you see in this photo are protected by Congressionally-designated Wilderness. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
TW: I agree with you that objectivity is a myth and that false equivalency, i.e. suggesting that with any issue there are two equally valid perspectives, doesn’t comport with reality. So, let’s explore this. Keep going.

HERRING: Yes, criminals who rob old people of their pensions probably had some difficult childhoods and they probably really do enjoy the money they get from robbing: such as buying groceries, going out to eat, getting extra high on the drugs they buy with the money. Is it advocacy or activism to object to that robbery of a helpless person? Do we violate the standards of journalism if we see an out of control 18 wheeler bearing down on a busload of school kids, and we yell at the bus driver and say “Look out!”  or somehow try to head off the disaster?

TW: Of course not and we’ve discussed this before. But under the old rules of journalism, which I wholeheartedly disagree with, it’s considered a sin to take a side. Just as it is considered a sin for, say, a wildlife biologist to care about the survival of the animals she studies. In Libby, Montana, some journalists were aware for years that people were getting sick from asbestosis in their lungs and dying, but no one called it out as wrong until the problem was probed by journalists with fresh eyes.

HERRING: I state clearly in the beginning of the film that this movement to take our lands is real, and that my responsibility, as a person who knows what this is about, is to try and inform the American people about what we have, how we got it, and what is at stake. That is all I’ve ever done as  journalist.
"There is a group called the American Lands Council that does nothing but advocate for the states to take over public lands, which would then be sold off —that group was headed by a Utah legislator and land developer, and is now headed by Montana legislator Jennifer Fielder."  —Hal Herring
TW: It’s about more than simply putting vetted and fact-checked information out there. You are suggesting—advocating—that public lands need to be cherished, guarded and protected.

HERRING: I can’t make people act in all of our own best interests. I’ve been writing about the 1872 Mining Law, surely one of the stupidest give-aways in US history, for decades, too. But the money still flows out, the lands still get wrecked, the resources are still being pillaged, and the malefactors are still profiting. Most Americans don’t know or seem to care anything about it.  But if you tell them, truthfully, that there are people out to takeover the lands where they camp and get their water and graze their cattle, take the lands and cut them out of the deal entirely,  well, they might care about that. I guess we’ll see. 

TW: How fearful are you about the threat of us losing our public lands birthright and what are the threats?

HERRING: I’m not fearful, and I no longer believe in birthrights. I think you-we-one get(s) to keep whatever it is we are willing to fight for, and to do that we have to understand what we have. We have to understand who wants to take it, and what is at stake if you lose it, or let it be taken. I guess I am alarmed that so few people, with so much to lose, have not paid closer attention to this. But the film’s popularity proves that Americans are listening and we are interested.  

TW: Okay, so what concerns you?

HERRING: If you travel the West, and look at irrigated agriculture and the water consumption rates of booming arid-land cities, look at the trend of these mega-rich people buying 200,000 acres of very marginal lands, and you look at the beauty and richness of some of our BLM and Forest Service lands in comparison to those lands so eagerly bought up, you’d have to be willfully blind not to know that the public lands and the water that originates there will someday be targeted for disposal. 

TW: As you see it, the threat looms close to home to us, yes?

Hal Herring during a trip in 2015 to ANWR
Hal Herring during a trip in 2015 to ANWR
HERRING
: Look at the population figures. Look at Bozeman and how it has exploded to the edges of the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. Look at Las Vegas washing over the BLM lands all around it. It is happening. 

We’re going to be asked what we want to do and see. Asked what kind of future we want to live in and to leave the future generations. And we can never forget the sheer amount of money that would be made by selling off  public lands and water. That equation means that the threat will always be there.  Eternal vigilance, and so on, will be required…what is it that my right wing friends always remind me? “Freedom isn’t free.” They got that exactly right. 

The public lands may be the last greatest cash cow available to those kinds of people who don’t produce anything, who don’t invent or create art or music or film, or innovate in business or take great risks, or roof a house or put out fires or cast a broken leg.

Former Utah legislator Ken Ivory said plainly that having the states take control of  public lands is “like having your hand on the lever of a new Louisiana Purchase.” And one that he and his ilk would not have to go to war with France or Spain for, or pay $15 million in gold, as we did with the first, real Louisiana Purchase. The privatizers want it all for nothing. And they plan to get it.

TW: What do public lands in the 21st century represent for the common citizen. Put it in perspective.

HERRING: The public lands, oversimplified, are the last vast example of a commons, shared by all of us, rich or poor in this nation which is approaching levels of inequality never before seen here. Less simplistic, these lands are an example of American problem-solving at its historical best. Look at the setting aside for the public domain the watersheds that provide 63 percent of all available water in the arid West. 

Look at the Bankhead Jones Act, where lands that should never have been homesteaded were abandoned and literally turning to a moonscape of lost topsoil and weeds, useless to the future, and they were taken back into the public domain,  restored as much as possible, and leased again, providing money for educating our people. Look at the Weeks Act, where, after oligarchical landowners in the South and East displaced small farmers to marginal lands. 

These lands became exhausted and ruined. But they were taken into public domain to be part of the newer national forests. Ecological collapse in the wake of scorched-earth logging left moonscapes and floods and sediment choked rivers across the east. These lands are now some of our most beautiful and most visited national forests. 

TW: Were you surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response the film has generated and where do you want to go from here?

HERRING: I was utterly surprised by the reception to the film and at how many people have watched it and are watching it. It is a success, in my opinion, ruthlessly edited and with master storytellers in charge of it from the very inception.  

I had no idea we would end up with a coherent, entertaining film like this, had no idea how skilled and professional these people I was with really were and are.  I knew David [Garrett], David [Byars],  Jeremy [Rubingh] and Drew [Xanthopoulos] and knew they were good at what they do, that is all. I trusted that it would be—it might be—I hoped like hell it would be!- alright, and did my part as the talking head who’d been in this subject for a long time.  

I was free from the anxiety of the creator, free from trying to get my arms around this huge, amorphous, nearly impossible subject. A lot of the time I could just enjoy the travels and the people I interviewed and learned from, some of whom have become valued friends. I got lucky. Where from here? I’m writing a book on the public lands. My tail is on the hot plate now, and it is very hot.
In December 2017, President Trump issued a proclamation that reduced the size of Bears Ears National Monument and in so doing left this spectacular landscape called Valley of the Gods in southern Utah out of monument protection. Valley of the Gods is located not far from Monument Valley on the Navajo Reservation. Photo courtesy Bob Wick/BLM
In December 2017, President Trump issued a proclamation that reduced the size of Bears Ears National Monument and in so doing left this spectacular landscape called Valley of the Gods in southern Utah out of monument protection. Valley of the Gods is located not far from Monument Valley on the Navajo Reservation. Photo courtesy Bob Wick/BLM
TW: To a young person seeing the film, what are three tangible things they can do, relative to preserving their public land heritage, that can add up to something meaningful/purposeful?

HERRING: Three things to do: Learn the history of how we got the public lands, especially any public lands that you may use and enjoy. It’s fascinating. Check out the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming— America’s first “timber reserve” and how we got that one. Or the history of the Pisgah and the Nantahala is equally unlikely and mind-blowing— destruction, abandonment, renewal on the grand scale. 

Look at the old 1930’s photos of erosion gullies in Alabama, and visit what is now the Bankhead National Forest, and on and on and on. It will make you proud of our history. And wary!

TW: What else?

HERRING: Two: Listen closely to what people who are running for office say about public lands and our environment. Why is there a paragraph in the Republican National Committee’s platform calling for the privatization of public lands?  Is that what conservatives believe should happen to our lands?  

How many voters actually want that, if they know what it actually would mean for them and their children? We still live in a highly functioning country, with strong institutions and stop-gap measures on some of the our worst and most misguided impulses. Use those institutions.  Engage in public lands’ management decisions. Contact your elected officials and tell them, unequivocally, what you want to see happen with our public lands. Do not fear conflict!
"Transferring now-public lands to states and to private ownership would literally re-make the US. The filmmakers thought that Americans—most of us don’t seem to understand  what we have with these lands, even though so many of us, especially in the West, use them and love them—needed to know about the privatization movement."   —Herring
TW: Well, there are some who claim we need to get along by going along, to not rock the boat, to look out only for one’s career and not be a public servant, to not say anything that might offend members or your own tribe, let alone those who might disagree with you.

HERRING: We need conflict! Dirt bikers and wilderness devotees, wolf lovers and wolf haters, and so on, are not necessarily at odds about public lands and management. I say stand tall, learn, engage, listen, stand tall again. 

I guarantee there are Americans who would tell you that they believe the public lands should be sold off, and these same Americans have never once thought about what that would mean.  Engage with them. Be informed enough to explain to them why that might not be what they really want. Conflict is a given, and a positive. 

TW: Of course, this isn’t about all or nothing. However, either a river is going to be polluted by a mine or it isn’t, wildlife habitat is going to endure or it isn’t. You’re not saying compromise means allowing mining to proceed if only it produces 50 percent less pollution or having crucial wildlife habitat in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge cut in half are you?

HERRING: If only one side wins, then eventually we could lose the whole shebang, as the losers become disinterested, disgusted, disengaged. Anger is not the greatest danger, nor is some measure of hatred between opponents. Indifference is the greatest danger here. We’ve had it perhaps too good for too long. There is a lot of complacency, a lot of feeling like nothing bad can ever happen. Well, the time for that is over. Complacency will result in something bad happening.
"Anger is not the greatest danger, nor is some measure of hatred between opponents. Indifference is the greatest danger here. We’ve had it perhaps too good for too long. There is a lot  of complacency, a lot of feeling like nothing bad can ever happen. Well, the time for that is over. Complacency will result in something bad happening."  —Herring
TW: Yes, it seems as if those with hidden influence and power who want to plunder are taking advantage of complacency.  So how do people not be complacent?

HERRING: Three. Become informed. Read credible journalism. Go outside and explore. Get rained on, hailed on, lost and found and lost again. Nobody on this planet has the same freedom as we do in America to wander on public lands. Will you find too many people in places? Trash and spent shotgun shells and old mattresses? Yes! 

Will you marvel at how bad people can act with a commons? Yes! Will you also have some transcendent adventures, even if it is just walking your old dog down a creek after work? You can hike the whole Continental Divide Trail, cross the Bob Marshall Wilderness, bounce from winter camp to winter camp on BLM lands along the southern border, soak in wild hot springs in Nevada, sleep on the beach in north Florida. It is all ours. All ours to keep or lose.  

TW: Let's return to the film. It takes note of the fact that the Trump Administration moved quickly to reduce the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national nonuments, among other things. In addition, The New York Times has compiled a list citing examples of where the Administration has moved to reverse or weaken nearly 100 environmental protection rules.

HERRING: The overall premise of the film is that we have a system of 640 million acres—about one third of the US—that is held in common by the American citizenry and managed in trust by the federal government. This system of public lands is utterly unique in the world, and it has been under attack since its very inception by those who want to profit from these lands, or who object to their existence for whatever reason or ideology. That attack has never been so well-funded and well-organized, or so brazen, as it has been in the past few years. 

Transferring now-public lands to states and to private ownership would literally re-make the US. The filmmakers thought that Americans—most of us don’t seem to understand what we have with these lands, even though so many of us, especially in the West, use them and love them—needed to know about the privatization movement.  We needed to know what the implications were for our lands, and what was going on, politically and in every other way, with this huge public commons. 


Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. He's been a journalist for 35 years and writes for publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics ranging from scientific whistleblowers to Ted Turner and the story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen.  For more on Wilkinson's career, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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