The Our Canyon Lands trailer — created by filmmaker Justin Clifton, former Executive Director of the 5Point Film Festival and Director of MountainFilm On Tour — speaks for itself. It’s a visually stunning ode to the desert, a compelling advocacy piece for a treasured national landscape, and a commentary on the state of humanity. This soon-to-be-released documentary tells of the current threats facing Southeastern Utah: oil, gas, potash, uranium, and tar sands mining on land just outside of the protected area of Canyonlands National Park. It aims to raise awareness of the problems the country could face on a national level if we don’t choose to protect this area, which Clifton spoke to us about.
THE CLYMB: What compelled you — personally and professionally — to tackle a project like this one?
JUSTIN CLIFTON: It was a conscious shift from the path that I was on to evolve and use my skills to help advocacy groups tell their stories. A little over a year ago, I made a conscious shift to create media for change.
I earned my degree in journalism and worked in television news for a while, but the majority of my background comes from spending a decade curating film for festivals (primarily advocacy film). Seeing the power of film for change made me really want to go out and help people tell more of the stories that weren’t being told. In many ways, it’s the evolution of journalism in America.On the personal side, this landscape is in my soul; I’m not just tackling this from a professional standpoint. This is one of the few places where I feel truly at home. The region at risk is in the Colorado Plateau, which is my backyard, and I care deeply about it.
THE CLYMB: What is the story of Our Canyon Lands really about?
JUSTIN CLIFTON: It’s about our collective equity in these public lands. We’re talking about landscapes that all Americans own equally, and it really becomes a question of what our priorities are as a nation. Do we want to industrialize the best of our landscapes for 17 days of oil — which is about how long the resource in the Greater Canyonlands Region will last at today’s consumption rates — or do we want to protect these landscapes for future generations, to maintain the integrity of wild spaces for our own human imagination?
THE CLYMB: How did you first learn of the threats facing the Greater Canyonlands Region?
JUSTIN CLIFTON: My first introduction was when Tim DeChristopher stood for the lands and ultimately went to prison. Like a lot of people, I thought what he did changed what was happening throughout the region. Unfortunately the pressures intensified and our public lands throughout the region are still being auctioned off to industrialize this unbelievably wild landscape. It was through the Grand Canyon Trust that I learned more about what was happening. The work they are doing with others like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Sierra Club to save this landscape is unparalleled, but they need the help and support of informed citizens to get this land protected.
THE CLYMB: What is one reason that someone who has never set foot in this area should care about it?
JUSTIN CLIFTON: There are so many reasons: environment, climate, solitude, adventure, escape. But, if I have to say one, I’d say water. This landscape is vitally important to the Colorado river watershed, which sustains more than 40 million people. Beyond that, it provides 15 percent of the food we consume in the U.S., so without a healthy Colorado river, our country will suffer tremendously. Once it’s gone we can never get it back. This is truly wild land that we should leave as a legacy — a gift — to all future generations (to quote the late Randy Udall).
THE CLYMB: What’s something you’ve learned from taking this project on that you didn’t expect to?
JUSTIN CLIFTON: That nothing fits into a pretty little box. This is a complex story about economics, community, industry, climate, environment, water — the list goes on. It would be so nice if you just had a villain to rally against, but this is much more nuanced than that. This isn’t a good vs. evil story; this is a story about what’s important to us as Americans, as human beings living on this planet, about what we want our legacy to be. Are we bold enough to stand up and protect more of our treasured landscapes?
THE CLYMB: What was the biggest challenge you faced in setting out on the project?
JUSTIN CLIFTON: Knowing how the film would ultimately come together. I went in with a rough idea of a script that I felt would work and, within 30 minutes of our first shoot, realized that the script was completely out the window. Luckily, reality was much more interesting than what I originally thought the story would be.