Film on local wilderness likely to stir discussion
Zach Urness/Daily Courier

The recent film, “A Wild American Forest,” focuses on Southern Oregon and Northern California’s immaculate wilderness. But the film, being shown on PBS in 30 different markets and narrated by Academy Award winning actress Susan Sarandon, presents a viewpoint that can be seen as disproportionately pro-environment. Here’s my review, along with a conversation I had with director Doug Prose.

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By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

The natural beauty of Southern Oregon and Northern California's Klamath-Siskiyou bioregion is the focus of a new documentary being shown on Public Television stations across the country, from Alabama to Michigan to New Hampshire.

Images of the Wild and Scenic Rogue River, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park and the Kalmiopsis Wilderness highlight "A Wild American Forest," which made it into the homes of 30 different markets across the United States.

I saw the film at a packed Grants Pass High School Performing Arts Center Saturday night as part of the Siskiyou FilmFest. And while the cinematography was stunning enough to make any Rogue Valley resident proud of their backyard, there were parts that will likely stir discussion.

Narrated by Academy Award winning actress Susan Sarandon, the film focuses on two main themes.

The first centers upon the 20,000 square-mile eco-region's biological richness located between the Umpqua and Sacramento Valley, and from Interstate 5 to the coast.

Filmed in more than a dozen wilderness areas and national monuments, the film explores the region's geologic history, large swaths of old-growth forest and a collection of immaculate rivers.

It's the second theme that will likely cause discussion.

The film navigates Southern Oregon's history of logging, mining and dam building in a way that, to many people, will come across as disproportionately pro-environment The majority of people interviewed for the film expressed the opinion that environmental protection was a positive.

I don't necessarily disagree, but there's a large constituency in the Rogue Valley that view environmental regulations as a burden to the local economy, and the film would have been more balanced by presenting their viewpoint.

Further, the notion expressed by the film that towns such as Grants Pass have evolved into a place where tourism and sustainable industry have supplanted the logging-based economy is a stretch. Josephine County has diversified, but still struggles with an unemployment rate that hoovers around 13.9 percent as of January 2010 — higher than the state average of 10.5 percent. Jackson County's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 12.5 and Douglas County’s was 14.2. Many of the service industry jobs pay far less than those traditionally supported by logging as well.

Of course, just about everyone can find something to complain about when there's a feature film detailing your own stomping grounds. When the film was shown Saturday night, a very nice lady in the audience wanted to know why there wasn't a greater focus on environmental activism. Everyone has an opinion.

And so, in an effort to give the filmmaker the last word, I spoke with director Doug Prose from his home in Oakland, Calif. We talked about logging and a recreation-based economy, the challenges of putting together a 57-minute film, and what makes Southern Oregon and Northern California such unique places. Prose produced the film with his wife Diane LaMacchia, with whom he's created 12 documentaries broadcast on PBS.

"A Wild American Forest" will be shown 8 p.m., on Sunday on Southern Oregon Public Television.

ZU: What was your goal in making the film?

DP: The goal was to show just how unique the Klamath-Siskiyou region is. It's one of the top temperate forest regions in the world. To have so much old-growth and ecological diversity is really amazing, and it's not something the general public knows about. Frankly, when we looked into this project, we were shocked that it hadn't been done before.

ZU: How did you get Susan Sarandon to narrate the film?

DP: Dianne was always hearing her voice when she was writing the (script). It's really difficult to get a celebrity narrator, but we contacted her agent, sent the rough cut, and she liked it and agreed to do it. The amazing thing was that she was so good, it only took her a few hours to finish.

ZU: I felt as though the film had a more environmental based message or tone to it. Was that the intent?

DP: I think my best way to characterize our angle was that we were looking at the wilderness, and what has happened to it, from the point of view of the land.

Most of the loggers that we talked to said that when the industry went down, it hurt a lot of people, but that it picked back up and people got back on their feet. A lot of them went back to school and figured out a different way to make a living. Some of them are still making a living in the logging business.

ZU: How do you see environmental conservation as a economic benefit compared to logging?

DP: Klamath-Siskiyou is a place where, according to economists, the economy has changed from logging to a more diverse, recreation-based one and the economy has since become stronger and more sustainable. Logging old growth — I emphasize old growth — at this point would not be good for the economy.

ZU: What struck you most about the area?

DP: The variety of different places. We'd go to the Marble Mountain Wilderness and get these lakes with big orange and red cliffs and think 'wow.' But not far away, we'd go to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, which is totally different with all the serpentine and different, truly amazing plants, like the Cobra Lily.

Most people know about the Rogue River — that's what makes this area famous — but it was amazing the diversity of places you can visit within a few hour's drive of Grants Pass.

ZU: How much of a challenge was it to get all the footage?

DP: We did a lot of hiking, just schlepping all the equipment into the high country. It was tricky because we shot with 16mm film and the camera doesn't like to get wet or dewy at all, so we had to take a lot of bags and not stay overnight.

ZU: Are you hopeful that the land you documented for the film will still be intact and unchanged in 20 years?

DP: I think that preserving old-growth forests is the order of the day. That said, just knowing how politics work, things could change very quickly. I don't think anything is set in stone. It could always go the other way.

I'd love to come back in 15 years and do a sequel


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