‘Public Trust’ Review: Saving National Lands

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Federal land ownership isn’t a topic that leaps off the page in a news article, but “Public Trust,” a documentary that shows viewers the scenic beauty of those lands, doesn’t have the same problem.

The film, directed by David Garrett Byars (Robert Redford is among the executive producers), follows individuals in different parts of the country who have fought to prevent the sale or lease of public lands to private industries like oil, gas and mining. Even without the threats those interests pose to the environment and to local economies, the film argues for the democratic importance of conservation.

Byars begins with the journalist Hal Herring, who explains the broader political push to privatize federally owned land. Other principal figures include Bernadette Demientieff, of the Gwich’in Nation in Alaska, who works to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the caribou who roam there; the Native American filmmaker Angelo Baca, who pushes to protect an archaeologically rich site in Utah; and Spencer Shaver wants to keep a mining company away from a part of northeastern Minnesota called the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The promised jobs, he explains, would be fewer than those that already depend on the Boundary Waters.

There were happy outcomes for Demientieff, Baca and Shaver by the end of the Obama administration, but the movie — which also counts Joel Clement, the whistle-blower who spoke out against the Trump administration’s Interior Department in 2017, among its interviewees — naturally doesn’t stop there. The final half-hour shows their progress turned back. The documentary is conventionally structured and sometimes placid, but it has an alarming message. Is it possible that even the Grand Canyon might not be safe?

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