I’m headed over to Golden, Colorado in a few hours to introduce Chris Davenport at a fundraiser for the Colorado Fourteener’s Initiative. So blogwise, what else is there to talk about than Dav’s movie the Forest Service (USFS) just nixed?
The story began more than a year ago when film maker Ben Galland began filming Chris Davenport and his companions doing ski descents during his “ski the fourteeners in 12 months” project. They got some exciting shots but overlooked getting a Forest Service commercial filming permit. Later they applied and were denied, then applied again and received a firm and presumably final denial this past Monday, April 30.
Myself and many others were (and still are) incredibly excited about this movie. By all accounts I anticipated it as being a ground-breaking creative about North American ski alpinism. More, the aesthetic and spiritual values that legal wilderness provides humanity are well represented in a nicely done and insightful film such as I’m certain this was going to be.
According to newspaper reports and various conversations I’ve had with individuals involved, the Forest Service had three major problems with the film. First, commercial filming on National Forest land does require a permit, the filming started without, and the permit was never granted. Second, much was filmed in legal wilderness and the Forest Service requires such films to “promote wilderness characteristics of solitude.” While by its very nature a film about skiing fourteeners promotes solitude, the bureaucrats ruled that the film falls short of their wilderness criteria (besides his small cadre, Davenport saw all of 4 other people during his trips on the 54 peaks). Third, and perhaps most unfortunately, Galland attempted to get permission for helicopter use in legal wilderness — something that simply is not going to happen for a commercial ski film.
So myself and many others are frustrated and saddened by this. We hold to hope that the film can be re-cut to satisfy the USFS, or perhaps given over to a not-for-profit that the Forest Service favors and used for fund raising. Davenport told me that indeed one option is to turn all the footage over to someone like the Colorado 14ers Initiative to re-edit with a stronger wilderness message and use as a fund raising tool, and that another USFS permit will indeed be applied for.
Meanwhile, many of us who wanted to see the film are angry at the Forest Service. Some of us feel betrayed by our own government (sorry to state old news). And filmmaker Galland’s lack of sensitivity to legalities only compounds the frustration — but perhaps he was caught up in the excitement of doing something truly special and was leaving mundane details for later, not the first artist to do that!
When you think it through, the Forest Service is perhaps not the devil I’d like to make them out as. Other than a few environmental wackos who’ve snuck into the organization they’re just a bunch of underfunded bureaucrats probably watching out for their own jobs more than anything else. Overzealous enforcement is sometimes wrong and perhaps that’s what this is. But more, I think it’s a maneuver in rear-end coverage. For starters, how could the USFS approve a permit for a film that used helicopter filming in legal wilderness? That simply isn’t going to happen, even if the helicopter operated legally by staying above the FAA mandated flight ceiling.
If the USFS did approve a film with helicopter assisted footage of wilderness skiing, you’d hear a wailing cry like a thousand banshees rising from every enviro group from here to Taiwan. On top of that, if they approved one heli, why not more? Anyone who likes core wilderness ski descents, myself and I’m sure Davenport included, would not want that happening.
(By the way, to the Davenport crew’s credit let us be clear they did not “heli ski.” Rather a helicopter was used once as a camera platform to film skiing in legal wilderness, and the pilot ostensibly knew his FAA flight rules and stayed above the mandated 2,000 vertical foot ceiling, and thus acted appropriately.)
Regarding the film promoting wilderness values. I believe it does by default. But it’s a ski mountaineering flick, not some hour long nature porn epic — which is probably what the Forest Service means by something that “promotes wilderness values…”. Thus, to get past this criteria the movie will indeed need to be re-cut and probably taken over by a not-for-profit that the USFS favors.
There is still a fairness issue in this that grates on me and I’m sure many others. While in theory law enforcement isn’t as much about fairness as about enforcing what’s on the books, in reality it frequently is about being fair. When a case goes to a judge, for example, there are plenty of times when feelings of what’s fair might influence their decision on sentencing and other aspects of law within their power. Ditto for the USFS. Administration of the Wilderness Act is open to huge interpretation, and the “commercial film” rules they’re operating under are archaic and ridiculous strictures put in place to prevent old-school Hollywood style film projects from running roughshod over the landscape — not a few friends traveling under their own power and filming a personal adventure, however “commercial.”
So I’ll say it again, as I did in a past blog:about this issue. For the Forest Service to deny a permit for this film, without simply requiring that heli photography not be used, is arbitrary, capricious, and discriminatory of ski alpinists. I say this for many reasons. Regarding the big picture, I say this because the USFS really does very little to stop existing forms of destructive wilderness use, both legal and illegal, that are far more problematic than three or four men taking pictures of skiing in a winter landscape devoid of human presence. Snowmobile riders that illegally enjoy wilderness rides all across the west are one example. But overuse and damage of trails by horsepackers is perhaps an even better example, since horse use is legal and sanctioned by the USFS (and in many cases is a fully commercial endevor).
Yes, two wrongs don’t make a right. But there are issues of scale here, of fairness, and even Galland’s right to free speech and the public’s (our) right to see these images of our own public land.
But even the darkest cloud has the potential to produce beautiful powder. Thus, sooner or later I suspect we’ll see a movie about Davenport’s fourteener project. I’m sure it will be enjoyable, even award winning — and perhaps better than the original cut by focusing even more on the personal, spiritual and wilderness aspects of Colorado ski alpinism.