THE SAVIOR OF THE SUNDANCE
Robert Redford is one of Hollywood’s most celebrated actors and directors, but offscreen he has been waging a lifelong campaign to preserve the earth’s natural resources and keep some of
america’s most vulnerable places out of the hands of commercial developers and big business.
Robert Redford is still a golden boy of Hollywood, an all-American star of the silver screen who, despite nearing the age of 80, retains the handsome features of his youth, and the passion and desire that have been central to his pursuits outside of the realm of acting. In 1978, Redford founded the Sundance Film Festival, which still exists today as one of the major highlights of the cinematic year. In 2001, he was rewarded for his efforts with an Academy Honorary Award and hailed by the entire industry as an “inspiration to independent and innovative filmmakers everywhere.”
Offscreen, however, Redford has turned his attention and considerable gravitas to the pursuit of environmentalism. Not only is the celebrated thespian a devoted trustee of the Natural
Resources Defense Council, but in 2012, he was also honored by Pitzer College through the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability, which educates future generations
of Californians with the aim of tackling some of the most complex and immediate threats to the world’s ecology.
“I’m an individualist and a loner by nature, and I won’t preach,” explains the actor and director. “All I can do is help fight the negativism and the malaise that has crept over us; we don’t have to be sheep. I’ve tried to do my part to fight against a mass consumption society that is killing our environment, and I think that slowly some progress is being made. But in order to save the lakes and trees, society as a whole needs to believe that life is worth living and that the future is worth protecting.” Despite the fact that Redford can now look back on decades of work at the forefront of environmentalism, it was not always so. Nowadays, he is known for participating in a host of films that document ecological struggles across America, including his appraisal of the dire situation regarding the Colorado River in his 2008 documentary Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk.
But it was his time as a young man traveling in Europe that opened Redford’s eyes to the problems that society faced. “The time I spent in Paris was a decisive point in my life. It transformed me,” he says. “I was part of an incredibly stimulating crowd of artists and intellectuals who were all heavily interested in politics, whereas I was ignorant in that respect. They pushed me to think and develop my ideas, and that process was a major step in my evolution.” He continues by explaining, “I felt almost humiliated when I was living among these very committed French students and
artists who would have these incredibly sophisticated debates about broad political issues in Europe. Being in Europe gave me a whole new perspective on life, and when I came back to the United States, I felt I was ready to make my mark – I wanted to learn more about the important issues in my country.”
It was in his home state of California where Redford began to realize that things were not as sunny as they were made out to be. By the time the “political and cultural ferment of the 1960s came around,” Redford had decided to make social statements, both onscreen and off. “I was ready to think about the issues that were being raised, and I wanted to understand as much as I could and in my own way – with films like Downhill Racer and The Candidate – make some sort of statement,” Redford says. He adds that, “As an actor, you have to be careful – when I started getting involved
in environmental issues, long before they were popular, I was getting attacked as some sort of tree-hugger.”
It was not just Redford who was being dismissed at that time by the mainstream media – the power of big companies made it almost impossible to speak out against the rampant destruction of the environment. “The powers that be had too much power at that time, so they could drown you out,” he recalls. “Oil, gas, and coal companies had all the power because they had all the money and all of Congress behind them. You felt like you were just a voice in the wilderness. I thought: If you have passion and just keep at it, eventually things will start happening.”Although Redford admits that environmental issues are becoming more commonplace in discussions surrounding American society, he also stresses that the same issues are not a recent revelation.
“I remember hosting a climate conference in Denver in 1985, where two scientists came and made presentations about global warming,” he recalls, before exclaiming, “They were already
predicting that the icecaps were melting then!” The consequences of such ignorance about the need to protect nature – such as the decisions made during George W. Bush’s presidential tenure that led to events such as the Appalachian toxic coal slurry spill at the turn of the century – still have far-reaching negative effect on the fight for environmental protection today.
“It was frightening that the Bush administration tried to destroy many of the government agencies that had been created to protect the environment,” says Redford, referencing the gutting
of sections of the Clean Water and Clean Air acts, and the crippling of the Superfund Program, which was an attempt to clean up toxic waste in more than 48 states. “We still haven’t
recovered from the damage that was done to federal institutions that were created to safeguard our water, air, and what oil, gas, and mining companies are doing to our land.” Redford’s own unique experiences of the damage caused by commercial natural-resource mining have fueled his own personal development of projects, such as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah – a 1.7-million-acre expanse of land that Redford campaigned to keep out of the hands of the mining companies, from 1975 right up until President Clinton officially closed the area off to development in 1996. “I first started to worry when I went to work at the oil refinery where my father was working,” he explains. “I remember seeing the oil seeping into the sand dunes and making a chemical mess of the land. It kind of horrified me that we could be so dismissive of the damage we were doing to the soil and air.”
The time I spent in Paris was a decisive point in my life. It transformed me. It pushed me to think and develop my ideas, and that process was a major step in my evolution.
The chance for Redford to showcase the fruits of his environmental labor came as the popularity of his independent film festival began to rise. The event was moved from Salt Lake City to the Sundance Resort, an area of land on the slopes of Mount Timpanogos in western Utah that Redford acquired in 1968. “I grew up in a grim urban setting, and being able to develop land out there was a form of liberation to me,” he says. “Utah was an ideal setting because it was very raw and beautiful – at Sundance, I’ve taken this acreage, which is now almost 6,000 acres, so that only wildlife can exist inside.” Not even Redford’s beloved Utah, however, is untouched by commercial development.
“If you drive out of Sundance,” he says, “the moment you leave the canyon, you see nothing but concrete, cement, and bulldozers – that’s the attitude that surrounds us.” The veteran thespian hopes that recent signs of positive change in the general public and mainstream media’s attitude toward environmentalism will only continue. One modern ally that Redford did not have back when he began his fight to protect America’s natural landscapes in the late 1960s was the internet, which he says is allowing “more information to reach people faster than ever before.”
This, he envisions, will bring about a change in politics. And although he believes it has already begun to happen, he is as determined as ever to challenge the same dominant voices that threatened to drown him out decades ago. “I think they are genuinely worried, but the ones that are most threatened are going to raise their voices the loudest because they see their time is running out,” he declares. “They don’t want to go quietly into the night because of all that money that has been made in their industries – and since money really runs the show, I think they see a threat to their investments.”
Having fought tooth and nail against the powers that be for decade after decade, Redford’s mission is just as important now as it was in the 1960s. However, the true cost of such development, he says, will not be known for many years to come, when future generations will be tasked with the attempt to rebuild the world, if they can. “Our planet is shrinking, and I worry about what’s going to be left if we don’t stop,” he sighs. “What we develop for our survival, and also what we preserve for our survival – if we don’t have equal preservation, there will be no planet left. After all, why would anybody want to bring children into the world if that’s the direction we are going in?”
Written by Jake Taylor.