Back in late 2017, Patagonia made a declaration: “The President Stole Your Land.”
The bold proclamation was in response to the Trump administration’s decision to reduce significantly the area around Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante that were designated as national monuments. Doing so would open up the possibility of that land being opened to commercial interests, including real-estate development, mining, and oil and gas extraction.
Patagonia also went to court in an effort to protect Bears Ears National Monument.
In the 2018 U.S. midterm elections, the company made its first-ever endorsements of specific candidates, Democratic candidate Jacky Rosen in Nevada and incumbent Senator Jon Tester in Montana, specifically to help protect water and public lands.
Today, the brand (which just named a new CEO) is launching a feature documentary on YouTube called Public Trust, which makes a compelling case for protecting American public lands and how extractive industries are actively working to shrink and privatize them. Executive produced by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and Robert Redford, the film focuses on three conflicts: the gutting of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, the threatened destruction of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and the fight over oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The film originally premiered at Montana’s Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in February, but Patagonia is making it public for free in an effort to raise awareness and support ahead of the election.
Director David Byars first started thinking about a film about public lands back in 2014. His last film, No Man’s Land, chronicled the 2016 Malheur Rebellion, when an armed group of far-right extremists seized and occupied the headquarters of a National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Byars says that film had a sense of mission in explaining what public lands are, the conflicts surrounding them, and how it’s a lot bigger than what happened in Oregon.
Public Trust is his effort at broadening the scale and scope of his storytelling on the issues of public lands.
“Telling the story of public lands is a tall order, and we knew we couldn’t make a film that covered the entirety of its 640 million acres across such diverse geography. It’s not one thing, it’s not managed by one agency—it’s incredibly complex,” says Byars. “So we knew we needed to distill it down to elements that encapsulated these issues.”
Bears Ears, the Boundary Waters, the Arctic Refuge, and the status of Montana ranchers fit the bill.
“The goal was to show the breadth and diversity of our public lands, then to have the places we’re focusing on have specific conflicts that were indicative of the types of conflicts around public lands in general, as well as those that had some kind of movement happening,” says Byars. “They needed to be indicative of public lands as a concept, a landscape, and a struggle.”
Another goal here was to make sure people understood that the public lands issue isn’t a red-versus-blue, left-versus-right fight.
“The left doesn’t have a monopoly on conservation,” he says. “This used to be a bipartisan issue. And that’s what we’re aiming for, to take public lands out of this arena of political football and back into an area of being untouchable. Or at least doing things that make sense, not giving it away for pennies on the dollar, or privatizing them outright.”
Byars doesn’t like the phrase “call to action,” but the film is crafted not only to get you angry, but inspired.
When I spoke to Chouinard in 2019, he said that the company’s goal with films was to act as a match, to spark action and turn audiences into activists. “We recognize that people make decisions based on emotion, and the best way to elicit emotion is through film,” he said. “It’s not through books or catalogs or speeches. So we’re in the film business.”
In Public Trust, award-winning writer Hal Herring sums up the crux of the film like this: “What’s at stake is this enormous, common wealth, the American system of public lands. I don’t say we have the right to it. That’s not it. You have the right to whatever you’re willing to fight for.”
If that’s the case, Public Trust is a battle cry.
Watch the full film below.