The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) produces an annual Wild & Scenic Film Festival, which travels from venue to venue each year. One place it comes to is the little town of Taos, New Mexico, home to WELC’s Southwest office and where Eric Schlenker-Goodrich, WELC’s executive director resides. As Executive Director of Izilwane, and as a Taoseño, I wanted to see how other environmental organizations were working with the medium of film for storytelling, how a traveling film festival worked as a fundraising mechanism for WELC, what angle most of the films were using, and I also wanted to let others know of WELC’s successful and fun film festival.
Formed in 1993 in Eugene, Oregon, WELC’s states its mission as: “The Western Environmental Law Center uses the power of the law to defend and protect the American West’s treasured landscapes, iconic wildlife and rural communities . . . . WELC has a highly experienced team of attorneys, conservation biologists and Western policy experts. We work close to the ground, with offices in Oregon, Montana, and New Mexico. As a public interest law firm, WELC does not charge clients and partners for services, but relies instead on charitable gifts from individuals, families, and foundations to accomplish our mission.” The festival’s evening program was hosted by Executive Director Eric Schlenker-Goodrich, who introduced the films, thanked sponsors, and spoke about WELC’s mission and programs.
The first film, Sand Rider, was fun and fast: Colorado native and snowboarder Marc Pastore surfs the sand dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve not far from Taos, New Mexico. The park is nestled at the base of the spine of the Rockies in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and, though dry, it is still home to elk, bison and reptiles. If you live in the high desert, as we do here, this is one way to get some surfing in without making the long trek to the nearest ocean.
Sand Rider was followed by Generation Green, which follows Patrick Hearps, a young man who quit a high-paying job as a chemical engineer for an oil refinery and took on climate change in his home country of Australia. Working with other passionate engineers, Patrick and his team created a country-wide plan to reduce climate change, most specifically by addressing energy issues. What struk me as the film opened was that being an environmentalist is still a difficult road to travel, that one is often poorly paid — if paid at all. Given that the environmental movement has been around since the 1960s, this illustrates our cultural resistance to change and our inability to engage in long-term thinking. Are we still hooked on the concept that economic growth at any cost is good? The good news is that people still do take the high road and that Patrick is one of them. Even more importantly, the Australian government became interested in his team’s plan. One can only wish that the U.S. government could attempt to shift this country to renewable energy. Patrick’s organization Beyond Zero Emissions is a welcome voice for climate solutions.
The Return is a 16-minute film produced by High Plains Films about moving a genetically-pure bison herd from Yellowstone to Fort Peck, home to 6,800 Assiniboine and Sioux in northeastern Montana. By 1881, all the buffalo were gone from this region, so the story of the bison’s return is not only one about rewilding bison but also a story about revivifying the Native American cultures connected with the buffalo. The Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes at the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation also will receive a portion of this herd. This film is a sequel to the film Facing the Storm, reviewed by Leon Aliski for Izilwane—Voices for Biodiversity.
The next film, Eyes in the Forest: The Portraiture of Jim Lawrence, was one of my favorites. In this film, Miriam Needoba follows photographer Jim Lawrence on his daily rounds while he takes photographs in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia. The film had exquisite footage of wildlife and scenery and captured the photographer’s small moments of connection and peacefulness in nature and his concern that we are losing so much biodiversity. If we could value this type of connection — caught so beautifully in this film — we as humans could transform our way of being, question our current assumptions and lifestyles, and move into a more coherent pattern of coexistence with the natural world and the other species who inhabit it.
After a rousing film about WELC’s work, which explains the organization’s history and current work, the audience broke for intermission and a raffle and door prizes, during which I won a gift certificate for a large pizza at Taos Pizza Out Back.
The next film was Last Light, a radical adventure film by Nick Waggoner and Ben Surgelewski about skiing during the long spring hours in Haines, Alaska. Presented by Patagonia, this film features Stephan Drake, Forrest Shearer, and Johan Jonsson, who are dropped off by helicopter, set up camp, and then hike high and drop fast, making crazy runs that left the
audience moaning with fear and tingling with excitement. Taos being a ski town, this superbly-shot film was a hit.
Next, Stories of Trust: Calling for Climate Recovery, Oregon follows 16-year-old Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana of Eugene as she discusses how climate change is affecting Oregon: causing droughts, reducing snow pack, leading to warmer temperatures, causing forest fires. After being assigned a passion project and choosing polar bears, Kelsey became extremely concerned about climate change and became part of the Trust Campaign. According to the Our Children’s Trust website: “The ATMOSPHERIC TRUST Legal Effort, coordinated and supported by Our Children’s Trust, is grounded in the Public Trust Doctrine, which states that it is the duty of the government to protect the resources that are essential for our collective survival and prosperity. These resources — rivers, groundwater, the seashore and in this case, the atmosphere — cannot be privatized or substantially impaired because they belong to everyone equally, even to those not yet born.” Our Children’s Trust, Witness.org, the iMatter Campaign, and students from Montana State University’s MFA in Science and Natural History Filmmaking created a series of ten films featuring nine young people and their stories about climate change. They live in California, Montana, Alaska, Arizona, Iowa, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Massachusetts, but their concerns are global. Taos’ own Sean Solowiej was involved in making these films and now teaches at University of New Mexico-Taos and also runs MediaTaos.org.
The final film of the evening was Streams of Consequence by photographer James Q. Martin and conservation biologist Chris Kasar. Their organization Rios Libres (Free Rivers) uses a multimedia approach in an effort to stop proposed dams that threaten two rivers in beautiful Patagonia. Damming the rivers and then shipping the electricity to the Atacama Desert for mining in the far north of Chile is the ridiculous scheme that Rios Libres is fighting. James and Chris film protests against the dam and travel through Chile interviewing “gauchos, scientists, activists and the public in search of answers.” The Chilean landscape, particularly in Patagonia, is resplendent and its people tough and committed to the land that has sustained them. One can only hope that Chile will wake up and turn to alternative energy, just as Australia is doing, rather than destroy its biological heritage.
As always, the Wild & Scenic Film Festival’s annual show in Taos was fun and educational. I look forward to attending again next year.
Photos courtesy of Dr. Tara Waters Lumpkin