Just a couple weeks ago, Patagonia released Public Trust on YouTube for all to consume. Public Trust explores America’s public lands, the people that depend on them, the people who cherish them, and the people who want to profit off them. Public lands are so much more than x number of acres; they provide water and food for communities, escapes for others, and they belong to all of us! Corporate greed and big-money politics seek to get rich at the expense of our public lands and wild places, but, thankfully, there are many willing to shine a spotlight on these schemes.
Public Trust tells this story masterfully, and highlights three ongoing public land fights involving The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Bears Ear national Monument, and The Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Follow along as we hear from the film’s Producer–Jeremey Hunter Rubingh–who provides some context for the film and a plea to fight for public lands.
Flylords: First off, Jeremy, congratulations on Public Trust! The film highlighted the timely and important message of protecting our wild places. Tell us a little bit about the inspiration of Public Trust.
JHR: Thank you so much. The timeliness of the issue can’t be overstated honestly. Never before have we seen so much on the line in terms of protecting our public lands and policies that ensure we steward our land, water and air for future generations. It feels like it has come to a head in a crucial moment from a political perspective in our nation’s history. And this is frankly in large part what inspired us to make the film. We were seeing rollbacks of environmental policy and removal of protections from public lands like never before as the Trump administration came into office and it felt like a critical time to take stock and try and explain our American public lands system to the public, as well as what may be at risk.
On a personal note, I grew up skiing, backpacking, and fly-fishing in Colorado every chance we had. My family instilled public lands as a part of our identity and life at a very early age. As I grew older and started to work in the conservation realm, public lands were still a place where I spent all my time recreating, but they became so much more. They became landscapes that defined for me what was so great about this country. They are the places that provide the clean water, air, and ecosystem services that we all depend on, whether we are aware of it or not.
For David Byars, my partner in making this film, he had moved to Colorado in the last few years from Georgia and was gob-smacked at the scale and access that public lands provided. He came from a place where there were not many federally managed lands and did not really understand how special this really was until he was in it. We both felt that we needed to do something to help communicate to other Americans how incredible this system of public lands really is and the fact that no matter who you are, what background you come from, how much money you have, etc., these are your lands too.
Flylords: How long did the Film’s production take? What was the most difficult portion?
JHR: We began our first day shooting in Salt Lake City on December 4th, 2017, the day Trump flew into Utah to announce he was going to attempt to undermine Theodore Roosevelt’s signature conservation legislation, the Antiquities Act of 1906, and slash protections for Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase Escalante. We were in production through 2019 and finally premiered the film in late February this year. So, it’s fair to say this took us about two and a half years to make.
I think the most difficult part was focusing our narrative. This topic is so expansive and so complicated that it is quite challenging to distill, even into 96 minutes. Our public lands system involves every state in the union and isn’t just limited to National Parks as many people think. So you literally could have made this film entirely in Ohio, or Maine, or Florida. Literally anywhere there are public lands there are interests looking to divest the public and make money off of them. It was challenging to just focus on certain geographies in order to explain the broader picture.
Flylords: Public Trust highlights The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Bears Ear National Monument and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, specifically, in the film. Why those two issues, and maybe what connects them?
JHR: I think these areas help represent the diversity of our public lands system, but also have looming threats to their existence from large corporate extractive interests, most often from companies that aren’t even based in the United States. You could have chosen many other places to tell the same stories, but Utah, Alaska and Minnesota all have very different landscapes yet reveal a similar pattern. There is an interest to divest the American public of these lands to cash in on a resource, more often than not leaving an environmental disaster at the expense of the taxpayer. These are also all areas that the Obama administration chose to protect based off of science and public input, yet the Trump Administration has chosen to try and develop with very little public process.
It was important to highlight Utah because Utah is essentially the tip of the spear in a lot of these land transfer movements and fights over protecting these public places. The National Monument designation was a path towards protecting, securing and educating about this incredible place. But it turns out that there is also oil and gas and uranium interests there– interests that were able to draw maps for the Trump administration, which in turn is attempting to give them the access they want.
We highlight the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the threats from oil and gas development to the last truly intact arctic ecosystem in the United States, and perhaps the world. This is habitat to our largest remaining population of endangered polar bear, musk ox, migrating birds from all over the world, wolves, bear, caribou and so many other species. The Gwich’in people and other indigenous nations are tied to this landscape since time immemorial.
The Boundary Water Canoe Area is the most visited wilderness in America. It’s a place that I think helps tie understandings of public lands to the middle and eastern half of our country. Despite the overwhelming science and public comment in support of protecting the Boundary Waters, the Trump Administration chose to reverse course and allow a Chilean Mining company to pursue copper-sulfide ore mining permits there.
Flylords: I think the film speaks a great deal of truth about the ideologies and priorities of certain politicians. Can you touch on how protecting public lands has become a partisan issue?
JHR: It is truly bizarre to me how something as loved and American as our public lands became partisan. And I honestly don’t think it has to be. There is a Republican former state legislator from Minnesota in the film, Craig Shaver, who makes the point that people, republicans and democrats, are in favor of conservation and the environment in overwhelming numbers and that’s why he was in a Republican caucus to make the case to protect public lands. It is some of the strongest polling data out there. Yet when we honestly survey how partisan politics play out on conservation issues, the Republican Party does not look so good. And that is definitely not to say that the Democratic Party is perfect either. But to this day it is still in the GOP party platform to transfer public lands to the state, and thereby private interests. And when we look at the voting records, more often than not Republican candidates are not voting in favor of protecting our environment and our public lands for future generations.
I think this has a lot to do with money and private interests’ role in our electoral politics. The campaign cash and PAC money coming from the fossil fuel industry and mining interests in many of these rural states have stolen the narrative and make too much noise for a real discussion to unfold. It is much easier to fan the flames of culture wars and invest in some kind of identity tribalism—i.e. if you don’t have an “R” or a “D” behind your name you are threatening my way of life—than it is to have a real honest discussion. And this is very much what we have seen the largest PACs funded by groups like the Koch brothers do. We have to ask where do their real interests lie? Is it in careful planning and thoughtful public discourse? Is it honestly in making as many jobs as possible? Or is it in as little regulation as possible to maximize profits for those at the very top? Their job is to make as much money as possible. So it’s not hard to see why these corporate interests are invested in electoral politics, regardless of how sophisticated their messaging is. So I think it has become partisan because there is a lot of money invested that is working to tie cultural identity in the rural areas that have the most public lands to a purely economic message that glosses over the realities of extraction economies that boom and bust. In the end I hope that this is an issue that we can take out of the partisan arena and all agree that public lands benefit all of us.
Flylords: In just a couple of days, we will conduct an election. Why is this election so important? What is at stake?
JHR: I don’t think there has ever been more at stake for the land, water, and air than in this election. We can either vote to cement the many legally questionable and environmentally negligent actions of this current administration into place, or we can vote to make sure there is a continued public and transparent process in our public lands and an opportunity to protect American lands for our kids and future generations. I wish it weren’t so black and white, but the last four years have revealed the direction this administration wants to head.
These are simple facts, not some partisan agenda. The Trump administration has removed protections for public lands on over 34 million acres. That’s practically the size of Florida. It is a simple fact that Trump is the only president in U.S. history to have removed more public lands than he protected. Just this week we saw this administration work to undermine the Roadless Rule and open up the Tongass National Forest, otherwise known as “the lungs of North America,” to roadbuilding and logging. If we are to have any chance of tackling climate change we need the Tongass for its carbon sequestration, never mind the incredible wild nature of the last great temperate rainforest on earth. Under this administration, millions of acres have been auctioned off to the fossil fuel industry. This administration is working to undermine the Endangered Species Act, has rolled back the clean power plan, clean water rules under Waters of the United States, methane capture from oil and gas, the blowout preventer rule that would protect us from another Deepwater Horizon spill, fuel economy rules, mercury emissions rules, air pollution rules in national parks and wilderness, rules to monitor and repair oil and gas leaks, taxpayer fairness for coal leasing, rules that required mines to prove they could pay for clean ups… The list literally goes on and on.
The decision makers that Trump has installed in our agencies like the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, United States Forest Service are all industry lobbyists. These are literally the same people that are making money off of the leasing and development of our public lands. If we continue down this road for another four years, it’s hard to imagine we will have much left of our public lands system with ecological integrity other than a few postage stamps on the map that are national parks—and even those are threatened. If these lands and waters are important to you, there couldn’t be more at stake.
Flylords: Thanks, Jeremy! To finish up: if you had to summarize Public Trust’s message into one sentence, what would you say?
JHR: American public lands are 640 million acres of the most beautiful land on planet earth that belong to all of us, and they are facing unprecedented threats from extractive industries and the politicians in their pocket.
Flylords: There you have it! Now, give Public Trust a watch and then go out and enjoy our public lands!
Thanks Jeremy! If you want to keep up with Jeremy, check him out @jeremycoloradoboy!