This Land is Our Land

‘Public Trust’ chronicles the decades-long scheme to privatize America’s wild lands and the struggle to preserve our final frontier from plundering.

Public Trust will be released on YouTube on September 25, one day before National Public Lands Day 2020.

From national parks and forests to grazing grounds and more, America’s 640 million acres of public lands are a sort of “nation within a nation.” This federally-owned territory represents more than a quarter of the country’s area, and is administered by US agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations,” according to the BLM. In protecting and preserving the flora, fauna, and cultural patrimony of this vast swathe of the United States, public lands provided ordinary citizens — including hikers, kayakers, hunters, backpackers, and more — access to nature, often for free or at affordable prices. They are a place Americans can go to still hear the call of the wild.

photo of public lands
In August, the Trump administration announced that it would open the 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil and gas extraction. Photo by of Kahlil Hudson / Public Trust.

David Garrett Byars’ Public Trust offers exposition of and historical context regarding these public places, explaining to lay viewers what America’s public lands are and what their purpose is intended to be. For example, the film cites the 1906 Antiquities Act, signed into law by President Teddy Roosevelt, a renowned outdoorsman, to create national monuments. But arguably more importantly, this 97-minute documentary full of majestic scenery exposes the insidious systemic assault that was unleashed in the 1980s to undermine if not entirely breakup the people’s ownership. Still ongoing, the goal of this land grab is to exploit these protected, publicly-owned areas by extracting mineral wealth and developing energy in order to enrich the few via sweeping privatization and deregulation schemes.

Public Trust traces the through line of this coordinated plan, from President Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump. The suspicious roles of the petro-billionaire Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which pushes conservative legislation at the state level, are scrutinized. As is the pro-extraction media and social media ecosystem typified by Fox News, InfoWars, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, and more.

The film revisits Reagan’s contentious, pro-development warrior, Secretary of the Interior James Watt — a religious zealot whose bulb burned dimly until he resigned in 1983 after making racist remarks. It also explores President George W. Bush’s post 9/11 “energy independence” policy, one focused not on renewables but on go-for-broke development of domestic oil and gas, including on public lands.

Although President Donald Trump campaigned on “draining the swamp,” once he took office his cabinet came to resemble the creatures from the black lagoon. Public Trust focuses in particular on anti-national monument apparatchik Ryan Zinke, another dubious, pro-business Interior Secretary (with an oil pipeline background!) whose tenure lasted only about two years before he was pressured out of the department, like so many Trump officials. Of course, Trump himself plays a significant role in this film that gives a whole new meaning to the term a “plot of land.”

Public Trust gives special attention to three contemporary conservationist causes, two of them Indigenous struggles, all occurring in far-flung locations. They are: The threat of oil and gas extraction in the 19 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), despite the strong protest of the Native Gwich’in. (The infamous Sarah Palin, Alaska’s ex-governor and failed GOP vice presidential candidate, is shown gleefully yelling: “Drill baby drill! Mine baby mine!”)

In Minnesota, environmentalists oppose a proposed sulfide-ore copper mine they believe could damage the 1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness watershed.

The film also delves into the controversy surrounding Bears Ears National Monument, which was protected by President Barack Obama in 2016. Soon after Trump came to power, Bears Ears — which is so rich in ancestral heritage, including extensive petroglyphs, that Navajo/Hopi activist Angelo Baca calls it “our Library of Congress” — is placed in the crosshairs. Zinke and Trump reduced the size of the monument by 85 percent, opening the area up for uranium mining leases and oil and gas exploration. Bears Ears is located in Utah, home to this documentary’s executive producer, activist actor Robert Redford, a two-time Oscar winner. (When it comes to preserving monuments, it seems like Trump is only concerned about safeguarding statues of slaveowners and Confederates — not indigenous patrimony.)

In addition to its villains, Public Trust’s real life cast of characters includes its fair share of heroes fighting the good fight to conserve the people’s property from privatization, deregulation, and despoliation. The stalwart Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, fights to save her people’s ancestral homeland and the Porcupine caribou herd at ANWR. Joel Clement, DOI’s senior climate policy advisor, was the Trump regime’s first major whistleblower, who resigned to protest Zinke’s stinky policies. Alabama-born Hal Herring is a writer who focuses on public lands and, according to press notes for the film, “discovered a murky, yet well-funded effort to wrest control and ownership of these lands away from the American people.” A variety of ranchers, Indigenous crusaders, and lovers of the great out-of-doors, who want to continue enjoying life beneath the wide and starry sky, fill the screen.

To its credit, the film opens stressing that Indigenous people are “spiritually connected to this land.” As the onscreen presence of Angelo Baca - the Native filmmaker, scholar, and campaigner organizing to save Bears Ears — reminds us, all of what we now call the United States of America was owned by First Nations peoples prior to Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Western Hemisphere, which triggered the onset of genocidal colonization. The formation of the USA is arguably the biggest dispossession of Aboriginal land owners in human history.

Byars’ well-crafted Public Trust has won several awards on the film festival circuit. It is made in a very straight forward manner, without any technical, formal razzmatazz as in an Errol Morris documentary, and without a Michael Moore-like onscreen narrator. Stylistically, what Public Trust boasts is cinematography celebrating the scenic splendor of America’s last wild places — and creatures. There are soaring, aerial vistas and shots of national parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Glacier that serve to powerfully, viscerally, visually remind us of what’s at stake.

Preserving this sensational scenery from rapacious over-development is precisely the point, along with perpetuating the lifestyles that accompany access to America’s exquisite Arcadian realms. This film asks if we really want to risk losing this majesty so that a handful of extractors and developers can loot the natural bounty, then, once the resource is depleted, abandon the region, sticking taxpayers with the tab to clean up the mess they have wrought. Gwich’in leader Demientieff eloquently expresses what could be the film’s credo: “We have to stand together or they’ll destroy our children’s future, our land.”

Public Trust will be released on YouTube on September 25, one day before National Public Lands Day 2020.

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