A Filmmaker at the Heart of Public Lands
Justin Clifton on rivers, the healing power of nature and his latest project, Return from Desolation
Growing up in Flagstaff, AZ, Justin Clifton’s childhood was spent scrambling around ponderosa forests, panning for gold in arroyos, examining potsherds in ruin sites and peering over the edge of the Grand Canyon. It was an existence so inextricable with public lands that it never occurred to him how lucky he was, or how instrumental the sandy canyons, soaring walls, and sparse beauty of the Colorado Plateau were in shaping who he would become.
But when he returned to Flagstaff as a budding filmmaker a few years ago, he had a big realization when he started witnessing the degradation of the public lands where he had spent his childhood. He saw roads cut into roadless areas for resource extraction, archaeological sites robbed, and threats of development.
“What I didn’t realize until I returned was that public lands offer every American a true sense of freedom, and yet there are a lot of people out there that only see them as dollar signs and want to take the lands away from the public and put them in the hands of individuals, states and corporations,” Clifton said. “This would fundamentally change what it means to be American and would certainly change the West.”
Determined to share stories of public lands at risk, Clifton embarked on a filmmaking path that landed him in the center of a national debate over their best use. His 2014 film, “Our Canyonlands,” introduced the issue of Bears Ears before it hit the national radar, and led him to create more than a dozen videos on behalf of the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition. His other films like “Walt” and “Leche y Miel” have tackled the scarcity of water in the West, while “A Line in the Sand” advocates for protecting the landscapes of the Southwest.
More recently, Clifton teamed up with OARS to tell the remarkable story of Utah-based raft guide Garrett Eaton, an Afghanistan veteran and oilfield worker whose experience of healing the pains of war through wilderness river trips can serve as a lesson about how public lands are more important than ever.
Clifton got to know Eaton on a five-day Green River rafting trip through Utah’s Desolation Canyon. By day, the group splashed through Class III rapids, drifted beneath soaring rock walls, and discovered petroglyphs. By night, they gathered around the fire to talk about everything from personal histories to the power of awe.
What Clifton found in Eaton is an unexpected and uplifting champion of wilderness. He is a man who on one hand makes his living in resource extraction, and on the other finds salvation from addiction, PTSD and depression in the sphere of public lands.
“These lands quite literally healed a broken man, and are necessary as a regular part of his life to regulate his mood and continue healing,” Clifton said. “He’s still an oilman, but he works as a river guide because he finds sanity and maintains sobriety in those canyons.”
“The whole story of public lands is told through this lens of healing,” he added. “They are this place where a person can truly find themselves and find solace without the noise of life clouding everything.”
Q&A: Behind the Scenes of Justin Clifton’s Deso Film
Q: What did you learn on your Desolation Canyon trip with Garrett?
A: Desolation Canyon is one of those places that you hear about from people who love rivers. Its location provides deeper canyon walls than the Grand Canyon at points, and there are very few overflights so it truly lives up to its name.
As I learned on the trip with Garrett, it is precisely places like this that provide the kind of connection and recharge that he needs to be the man he is. The lasting effects of war and addiction continue to fester for Garrett and many like him, but he finds a reset button down there. As he puts it, in his day job on the rig, it’s easy to believe that you can control everything and that you’re more important than anything—but down here on the river, you are forced to accept that you’re not in control of everything and there is something way more powerful and important than you.
Q: How does Garrett’s story tie into the larger issue of public lands in America?
A: Garrett found his recovery in wild places like Desolation Canyon. When he returned from war, he was confused about why we were fighting. It wasn’t until he was on a river trip with other veterans that he got the answer. Looking out at the large expanse of land, feeling free from the cacophony of everyday life, Garrett asked Stacy [Bare of Sierra Club Outdoors] what it was all about. Stacy answered: “This – this is what we fought for.”
In so much as he loves these wild landscapes, he is also an oilman who makes his living on the rigs that are increasingly encroaching on our wild places. Garrett represents the conflict we all live with daily. We want wild places to stay wild and spend great energy, time and money to get into those places, yet we rely on the very resource that is threatening the existence of the public lands we are escaping to.
Q: What is your advice for people who are worried about the future of their public lands?
A: Don’t sit back and hope that someone else is going to do the hard work to save these lands for you. You have to fight alongside everyone else. You have to add your voice to the chorus. Call representatives.
Let people in power know that you are not OK with your lands being sold off to the highest or most-connected bidder. They call them Federal Lands to try to convince people that it’s government overreach, but they are your lands. They belong to all Americans. If we don’t fight for them now, once they are gone, we can’t get them back.
Visit desofilm.com to learn more about Justin’s film, Return to Desolation.
Photos: Justin Clifton