Award-Winning Filmmaker Discusses Upcoming Wilderness Anniversary
An Interview with U.S. Forest Service's Steve Dunsky
by Jonah Raskin on July 02, 2014
Filmmaker Steve Dunsky usually spends his time behind the camera not in front of it. Now and then, however, he steps into public view. As one of the main creative forces behind the 50th anniversary celebration of the Wilderness Act that will take place in Vallejo this September, he’s become more public and perhaps more vocal than ever before. An ex-New Yorker, he’s lived most of his adult life in California. He’s adopted California ways, including a keen appreciation of the wild, as I learned when I first met him at the 2013 Geography of Hope Conference in Point Reyes, where his film Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time was screened before enthusiastic audiences. – Jonah Raskin
JR: Do you remember why you came to the Bay Area?
SD: My wife Ann and I moved here from Southern California, where we had met at the UCLA film school. She grew up here, so family and friends were a factor. For many years we lived on San Bruno Mountain which has a wonderful combination of rural feeling and metropolitan energy. Our film Butterflies & Bulldozers is about the community fight to save the mountain.
JR: Can you tell us how you adopted wilderness as a cause?
SD: In 1989, as filmmakers for the U.S. Forest Service, Ann and I created an audiovisual program for the 25th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Wallace Stegner wrote the script and read the narration. In the process of making that program I learned a great deal about the National Wilderness Preservation System. The 50th anniversary event in Vallejo—“Visions of the Wild”— will be a kind of reprise of my career.
JR: Is this event intended to broaden the appeal of the wilderness?
SD: Yes. Historically speaking, the conservation movement hasn’t been very inclusive, though serious attempts have been made recently to expand the circle. We want to be a part of this effort. It’s interesting to note that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed just a couple of months before the Wilderness Act. Both bills emerged from the same impulse. Progress has been made, but there’s still work to be done.
JR: Why are you calling it a festival and not a conference or a forum?
SD: We want the event to be fun! Our theme, “Visions of the Wild,” will appeal to a wide audience, not just the traditional conservation choir. Arts and entertainment are a big part of the program. We’ll have art shows, a concert, films, and field trips. We’re also emphasizing the role of young people.
JR: Why is it important to commemorate this anniversary?
SD: In my opinion it’s worth honoring our democratic impulse to restrain ourselves from developing every last corner of America. There’s a lot of debate about whether any wilderness area is actually wild. After all, “managing” wilderness is an oxymoron. Moreover, many claim that “wilderness” is an elitist construct. The phrase “Wilderness Act” creates semantic problems. Perhaps it should have been called “No Roads Anywhere Act” or “Let Evolution Alone Act” or “An Act of Humility.”
JR: The full title for the event is “Visions of the Wild: A Festival Connecting Nature, Culture and Community.” Why the emphasis on those three aspects?
SD: Aldo Leopold, a great wilderness champion, wrote: “The rich diversity of the world’s cultures reflects a corresponding diversity in the wilds that gave them birth.” Cultures from around the world arise from human relationships with the earth itself and from vital connections to other people. Mutually beneficial relationships make for strong, healthy communities. Symbiosis is a basic principle of ecology.
In the Bay Area we have a very diverse population and diverse landscapes, but we often become disconnected from each other and from the land. Poverty, racism and consumerism contribute to the problem. Sometimes we need to be reminded that “civilization” creates as many barriers as benefits. Sometimes, too, we need to redeem our responsibilities as “plain citizens” of the biotic community. We need to get back in touch with the wildness that exists all around us and in our own bodies.
JR: The science of the wilderness matters, too, doesn’t it? Will the scientific aspect be addressed?
SD: The science of wilderness will be addressed, but not in academic papers. Researchers are asking vital questions today: Can you “re-wild” a domesticated landscape? What does an “urban wilderness” look like? And what does “wilderness” mean in the era of human-created climate change?
JR: Tell us a little more about what will happen at the festival.
SD: The festival kicks-off on Wednesday, September 3rd, the actual date when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act in 1964. We’re offering a two-hour “Walk for Wilderness” on that day. It’s free and open to everyone who wants to get outdoors and celebrate.
On Thursday, September 4, we’ll have a panel that includes several members of Congress. One of the featured speakers will describe the long tortuous road that led to the passage of the Wilderness Act half a century ago. Over the past decades, serious critiques of the wilderness idea have been made. Many Native Americans are troubled by the way their people have been displaced in the name of a European social value. We want those voices to be heard. We anticipate a respectful and honest dialogue on the issues.
JR: Is there a spiritual as well as a recreational value to wilderness?
SD: One of our panels at Visions of the Wild will consider the spiritual values of wilderness. We’ve invited leaders from various faiths and backgrounds. Many people experience the solitude and beauty of wilderness as a kind of connection to a deity and to the cosmos itself. That feeling is expressed in the language of the great nature writers including John Muir.
JR: Tell us about the films you’ve made with your wife, partner, and co-creator Ann Dunsky.
SD: The films we’ve made are not “nature films” in the traditional sense of the term. They’re not about wildlife, forests or grasslands. They’re about the relationships between people and the land; we’re interested in the human connections to nature. In The Greatest Good and Green Fire, we explore how the American wilderness movement emerged from the passion and understanding of great conservationists such as Arthur Carhart, Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall and others.
JR: When you leave your office and your home and get into nature, what are your favorite places to go?
SD: I travel to national forests as part of my job. My work has taken me all over California and the rest of the country. Alaska is one of my favorite places; the Tongass National Forest is amazing. It’s hard to pick out any one spot in California, but I really love the Eastern Sierra and the Trinity Alps.
JR: And if you just have a few hours? What’s your favorite place nearby?
SD: The Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve is a wonderful open space that is just a few minutes from my office on Mare Island. The Preserve is the vision of Myrna Hayes. It is a great spot to hike, view wildlife including osprey, and have a panoramic view of San Pablo Bay.
>> To learn more about the Visions of the Wild Festival, visit www.visionsofthewild.org. To find out more about Green Fire, visit www.aldoleopold.org/greenfire/team.shtml