Thursday, May 9, 2013

Desolation Canyon - Wilderness Study Area or Hollywood Back Lot?



In the right foreground, "Thelma & Louise Mesa", as seen from Dead Horse Point, near Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Desolation Canyon - Wilderness Study Area or Hollywood Back Lot?

According to a recent Deseret News article, “Moab, Utah's scenic and diverse landscapes are an alluring backdrop for movie makers, and now the science- and thrills-based ‘MythBusters’ has picked the Desolation Canyon area to film an upcoming episode. Officials with the popular show are keeping mum about the ‘myth’ to be busted or proven — the trick is to tantalize the viewers — but a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) document details two curious components: duct tape and bubble wrap”.

Early filming near Moab, Utah included John Ford's Wagon Master, pictured here - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The article goes on to say that the upcoming episode will, “showcase the rugged terrain of the Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Area and feature rollicking romps along the Colorado and Green Rivers”. According to the Moab BLM Office, filming will take place in eight locations over ten days. “Strict time limits are set on film or movie permits in wilderness study areas to limit impacts (italics mine) to the environment”, a spokesperson said. With a purview 1.8 million acres, could the Moab BLM Office not suggest a less fragile and easily disturbed environment for filming? With over one hundred commercial film permits issued by Moab BLM each year, how many authorize shooting within “wilderness study areas”? Why allow anything but legitimate scientific or culturally significant filming in such a near-pristine environment?

Film production, such as the 1991 drama Thelma & Louise can be disruptive to the natural environment - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The Deseret News article went on to say, “Review of the permits is a necessary function of the BLM's public land management responsibilities, ensuring that recipients comply with the appropriate safeguards to minimize (italics mine) disruption of the environment”. The permit for MythBusters signed April 12, 2013 and issued the following week, encompasses activities that "would otherwise already be allowed in a wilderness study area, such as hiking or climbing". In the BLM statement, there is no mention of vehicular support, power requirements or sanitary facilities.

To me, “limiting impacts” and “minimizing disruption” at the Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Area is not enough. In support of ersatz science and commercial profit, BLM should allow no additional impacts or disruption of the wilderness study area. Wilderness stays wild only if protected from overuse by humans and their machines.

A close-up of "Thelma & Louise Mesa", where Ridley Scott sent their T-Bird off the cliff of the Colorado River Gorge - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)If I understand the concept, a professional production team will film actors as they recreate an experiment for which they already know the results. To spice it up, they will add some “personal danger” component. By “saving the day” with their duct tape and bubble wrap the Discovery Channel will appear to justify filming in a wilderness study area. If my thesis is close to the truth, the Moab BLM should require additional environmental safeguards for commercial shooting within any of its wilderness study areas.

Those safeguards should include aerial video footage focusing on the shooting locations, both before and after commercial activities. After completion of filming, BLM should compare the “before and after” footage, as provided by the permit holder. If there is any substantial impact or disruption of the environment, the production company should pay for remediation, replanting or loss of riparian habitat.

Contemporary Grand County, Utah Sheriff's cruiser - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)While filming the dramatic conclusion to the 1991 film, Thelma & Louise, director Ridley Scott leased a fleet of eleven Grand County, Utah and other official police vehicles. Up on the Shafer Trail, Scott ordered the “lawmen” to chase Thelma & Louise to the edge of a previously untrammeled mesa. During multiple “takes”, all eleven vehicles chased the actors or their stand-ins toward their eventual demise over the edge of the Colorado River Gorge.

Although Thelma & Louise is one of my all-time favorite movies, I was sad to see that the a total of twelve vehicles and their forty-eight wheels cut deep grooves into the soft, cryptobiotic soil atop the mesa. When viewed today, either in person or via Google maps, the mesa is a denude landscape, cut by arroyos and multiple social roads. Although Thelma & Louise Mesa is an environmental wreck, no one seems to notice or care.

In less dramatic fashion video shot from a helicopter could ensure that future filmmakers respect the environment - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)At this time, I do not accuse the BLM or MythBusters of anything untoward. Still, the public has a right to know how our most fragile public lands are used. As such, it would behoove the producers to rent a helicopter and document their activities for all to see. If they would devote more time to environmental preservation and less time to their “duct tape and bubble wrap” drama, I might tune in and watch their story on TV.

Since BLM issued the MythBusters film permit in mid-April, all of this may be a moot. If production schedules are tight, the entire process may already be over. If there was no aerial-video oversight of this project, perhaps BLM can add it to their requirements list. Then, next time they issue a permit for commercial filming in a wilderness study area, the public will be able to observe the outcome. Until then, whatever happens in Desolation Canyon stays in Desolation Canyon.