“We are wild creatures, and if you remove wilderness from us, you take away our human spirit.”
The story of Canyonlands National Park, and the lands that border it, is a complex tale of political horse trading, pressures for resource extraction, and recreational opportunities. It is also a story of the Wild West, of a rugged landscape, adventure, and fighting to protect our human spirit.
In the Western United States, we sometimes take for granted our vast expanses of wild public lands and rivers, but if you’ve been paying attention at all in the last few years, it’s clear that we’ve reached a tipping point. If we don’t step up to protect our wild backyard, we may lose these special places forever. And that’s just what prompted filmmaker Justin Clifton to take action.
Over the last year, Justin dug in deeply to learn more about his desert home in the Colorado Plateau. Teaming up with a local nonprofit, the Grand Canyon Trust, he launched Our Canyon Lands, a series of films aimed at protecting the Greater Canyonlands region. Since then, Justin has traveled all over the Greater Canyonlands region to capture stories and will be bringing them to our screen, big and small, in the coming months. Working with a coalition of artists, filmmakers, photographers, and storytellers, he hopes that the tales he is piecing together of this desert landscape will come to life in ways never before told—and spark a conversation, and motivate people to protect the 1.8 million acres of wild lands and critical watershed surrounding and bordering the existing park.
We pulled Justin out of his editing cave for a bit to ask him a few questions…
Adventure: Tell me a bit about your film project and how it got started?
Justin Clifton: Growing up in Flagstaff, Arizona, embedded in me a passion for wild open landscapes like the canyon lands of Southeastern Utah. This landscapes of the Colorado Plateau are the only place I really feel at home in the world. So when I connected with the Grand Canyon Trust a year ago, I pitched them on the idea of a film series to show Americans what a collective treasure we have out West, what’s at stake here, and to spark a conversation about protecting the best of who we are as a nation. Public lands are so vital to the human experience and give us an irreplaceable sense of freedom in the West. To to protect our public lands is an aspect of our collective heritage, and what we do today will decide what future generations have access to. I’m in the process of producing five short films that spark a conversation online and on-the-ground, and a short documentary that is aimed at the festival circuit.
A: You’ve been involved in the adventure film world for years, but this is your first film project. What hooked you on Our Canyon Lands?
JC: This is my first film. My first six films, actually. In addition to this being my home, the Our Canyon Lands story became a passion when I started to see what was being taken from us for what amounts to 17 days worth of oil and gas for the U.S. I want people to see this land for more than an energy colony or a dumping ground for industrialization. It’s a wonderland of possibility and the longer we’re complacent about how corporations are taking over our public lands, the more likely it will be that we won’t have any treasured wild landscapes left to escape to.
A: The Greater Canyonlands is an adventurer’s paradise. Can you tell me about one of your favorite adventures in this place so far?
JC: There are so many things I love doing in the desert, and there are so many opportunities for adventure of all shapes and sizes. Biking, climbing, rafting, naked hiking … you name it. Probably one of the the most memorable adventures for me was driving the Flint trail (famous escape route in The Monkey Wrench Gang). The goal was to get to Panorama Point, which overlooks the Maze district and is within the Greater Canyonlands region. It’s one of the most spectacular and remote camp sites on the planet. The views are incredible and the skies are unbelievably dark. It gives you a sense of scale that reminds you that we are all part of something so much larger than ourselves. A worthy goal for the trip. Well, for the most part, the drive was a straight forward and mildly insane 4×4 track, but we were there during a rare weather event and at one point we were stopped by a flash flood that rose three feet in a matter of a couple of minutes.
It was incredible to see how this landscape was efficiently gathering all of the rain and transporting it to the Green and Colorado rivers below. You could sense the power of this water in the sound of the rocks trundling down the red rock drainage. When we finally made our destination we were rewarded with one of the most spectacular scenic moments I’ve experienced in the desert. I will never forget it. The storm we were driving through would go on to dump more than 4 inches of rain in a three-day period in a region that gets seven to eight inches of rain per year. I fell in love with the desert all over again on that trip. Actually, I fall in love all over again every time I’m there.
A: Why is now the time to protect this place?
JC: Because we’re losing more and more of this every day. Because the speed at which our wild lands are being industrialized won’t allow us to wait any longer. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. The scale of development, the size and length of the roads built to support industry and the fragmentation of ecosystems will ruin this place forever. I for one, will fight to protect my home. I encourage everyone to learn more about what’s at stake and to take action.
A: What do you hope to accomplish with your project?
JC: We hope to protect these landscapes in perpetuity. But an important goal of mine is to remind Americans of what we still have to fight for, and to spark a conversation. I want to encourage people to build a legacy of protecting our public lands, because once they’re gone we can never get them back, but if we protect them, we will be remembered for the gift we left behind.