Questions from Pitkin County commissioners during a work session one month ago appeared to serve as a tough first test in the fundraising drive for an ambitious documentary project that would highlight past conservation successes in the Roaring Fork and Crystal river valleys and relate the importance of those efforts to a broad audience today.
The “Rivers of Fortune” film project, according to a grant application to the county’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board, has an overall budget of $237,000. The Aspen Valley Land Trust, a Carbondale-based nonprofit conservation advocacy group, is spearheading the initiative as the documentary’s fiscal sponsor but has created an advisory council that includes other environmental groups in the area.
Together, the organizations hope to develop the concept behind the film, which would be produced and directed by Jim Havey, head of the Emmy Award-winning Havey Productions of Denver. The company’s expertise has been proven with works that honor the heritage of the American West, such as “The Great Divide,” “Colfax Avenue: Main Street Colorado” and “Denver Union Station: Portal to Progress.”
The healthy rivers board, through its spring grant cycle, recommended that commissioners support a $10,000 grant to the land trust that would serve as seed money for a $50,000 film trailer. AVLT outreach director Matt Annabel told commissioners that the trailer would be a tool to raise money from private donors and corporations to cover the larger film budget. He admitted that the estimated cost of the trailer and the film itself was much higher than expenses associated with similarly themed documentaries that have been produced on lower budgets.
“It’s hard to pitch the story minus a trailer, the teaser for it, something that gives people a visual hook,” Annabel said.
In the end, commissioners agreed to move forward with the request, but expressed multiple reservations.
For starters, the storyline is still in question. Annabel said the “backbone” would be historic conservation movements in the two valleys involving public and private lands, river protections and how efforts came together to create a unique and special place. “It’s kind of the whole gamut,” he said.
The film’s correlation to the mission of the healthy rivers program — and the benefit to county taxpayers providing $10,000 in seed money for a project that might not be fully realized — also was unclear to some commissioners. But healthy rivers board chair Bill Jochems stressed the project’s “emphasis on rivers,” and suggested that any initiative that favorably demonstrates what local conservation groups have done, and continue to do, is a worthy cause.
Still, perhaps topping the list, and a question with which the advisory group and the filmmaker are grappling, is the question of how to make a documentary about regional conservation initiatives interesting and identifiable to a broad audience, especially the younger generation and those not already familiar with conservation work.
Commissioner Greg Poschman had the most concerns, noting that for the county’s $10,000, “there’s no guarantee that anything’s going to come of this.” He suggested that the rights for any interviews conducted for the trailer should be preserved for other uses in the event that the documentary isn’t completed.
Poschman, who is also a filmmaker, described himself as “a bit of a skeptic” and said the county ought to be the last party contributing toward the $50,000 trailer, but the other commissioners disagreed, and Poschman ended up going along. He added that AVLT and the film’s advisory council should seek other local experts in the film industry for advice.
“Is the audience [for this] even there?” he asked. “I don’t think the proposal is there yet — I’ve got to say that.”
Commissioner George Newman, who earlier in the discussion noted that Pitkin County’s participation could be viewed as a “leap of faith,” later concluded that being one of the project’s early funders would aid the land trust with its goals.
“You’ve got to start somewhere and I think that’s the purpose of seed money,” he said.
Documents that AVLT submitted to the county say that historian and author F. Darrell Munsell, a resident of the Carbondale area, is the brainchild behind “Rivers of Fortune.”
Munsell, a retired history professor who taught for 32 years at West Texas A&M University, self-published a book titled “Protecting a Valley and Saving a River.” Released in November, it’s a story of grassroots environmental activism that details the 1972 founding of the Crystal River Valley Environmental Protection Association, a group of Marble residents who banded together to oppose the transformation of their community into a winter-sports playground.
Afterward, the organization embarked upon a decades-long campaign against the West Divide Project, which sought to dam the Crystal River and divert its waters to drainages south of Silt and Rifle. The group also fought coal-mining operations and generally is said to have “brought environmentalism to the Crystal River Valley.”
“With the challenges to the environment today, people need to be reminded of the battles of the past,” the Amazon.com synopsis of Munsell’s book says. “‘Protecting a Valley and Saving a River’ describes how a small nonprofit organization without a paid staff successfully confronted corporate interests, federal and state bureaucracies and local governmental entities to achieve a remarkable environmental victory for a river and valley located in one of the most beautiful areas of Colorado.”
Munsell has written five books and another will come out soon relating to the development of Redstone. He said he went to producer-director Jim Havey and the land trust last year to pitch the idea of a documentary film on the history of regional conservation initiatives. He worked with Havey previously on a documentary called “Forging the West,” which tells the story of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, a turn-of-the-century steel and coal producer with an illustrious history.
“I’ve been interested in following what various groups have been doing in connection with environmental and land conservation efforts in the Roaring Fork and Crystal river valleys, what they’ve been doing for the last several decades in trying to resolve some of the pressures, the problems in connection with the valleys,” Munsell said.
He mentioned that since the 1960s, many long-standing groups have been involved in pushback against the dangers of overdevelopment and degradation of the ecology. They’ve fought to protect public lands and find solutions to water shortages while also looking to protect water quality.
“What really interested me in this project was the fact that I saw a coalition of groups coming together to advance what we might broadly call ‘land conservation.’ A good example of that was the merging of ranchers and environmentalists to create the Thompson Divide Coalition. I became interested in how these organizations evolved and what problems they saw that needed to be resolved to protect the valleys and to make sure that future generations can enjoy them,” he said.
Munsell said his basic idea was a film on the major problems that arose over the past century in connection with the settlement and development of the two valleys.
“One of the most critical problems is the water issue, the extensive demand on water usage,” he said. “That is related, of course, to over-development of the valleys. It is certainly a vision, an objective, of these various groups to prevent over-development that would bring about more degradation and environmental issues. It’s an ongoing problem, the extensive demands on water.”
Primary objectives of the nonprofits include preserving the rivers for recreational use and protecting public lands, Munsell said. He mentioned that successful endeavors by the Wilderness Workshop and other local groups have furthered those goals. He also said he believes public and private open-space purchases have been helpful in that regard.
He pointed out that the “Rivers of Fortune” project is at an extremely early stage, subject to many changes, and that its completion will be dependent on funds that can be raised with assistance from the movie trailer and also a website. He said he envisions the film as including a brief history of the settlement of the two valleys, including early mining operations, and discussing the transformation of Aspen from a dormant mining town to a 20th century model for the ski industry and the recreational economy.
“The introduction of the ski industry really helped to bring about extensive development and problems related to over-development,” he said. “And the whole story of Walter Paepcke’s renaissance of Aspen plays a pivotal point in the film. That renaissance helped to create a new culture and attitude in Aspen, the Roaring Fork Valley and the region, but it also helped to spur the environmental and anti-development movement that would lead to land conservation and environmental protection.”
He sees the introduction of using local waters for recreational use as a positive aspect of the ski industry’s genesis. Conversely, the negative result of the industry’s development and subsequent growth would be urban sprawl, the influx of second-home residential projects and encroachment upon public lands.
“That critical issue would lead to many individuals and groups joining together on conservation policies and the protection of lands,” he said.
‘A delicate project’
Annabel, the aforementioned director of outreach for the Aspen Valley Land Trust, said the next step for the project will be a meeting of groups on the advisory council later this month or in early July.
The council currently is represented by the land trust, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams, Roaring Fork Conservancy, Wilderness Workshop, Crystal River Valley Environmental Protection Association, and the historical societies of Aspen and Glenwood Springs. Other groups also have been invited to assist the effort.
“The meeting will dictate a lot about what happens with the future of the ‘Rivers of Fortune’ project,” Annabel said. “It’s really a delicate project. We’re working out details and how it’s going to go ahead.”
Though exact details about pre-production, the story and fundraising are still subject to change, the initiative is moving forward, he said. Havey remains on board and the target period to finish the film is the summer of 2020.
Potential interview subjects for the documentary, according to the healthy rivers grant application, include Munsell; Jochems; former Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris; Rick Lofaro of the Roaring Fork Conservancy; local ranchers such as Gary Knaus, Jim Nieslanik and Bill Fales; conservationist and whiskey distiller George Stranahan; state Rep. Perry Will, a former area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife; U.S. Forest Service district ranger Karen Schroyer; public lands advocate Connie Harvey; Tom Cardamone, former director of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies; and many others.
Plans call for a gala premiere screening upon completion. The film would be promoted for viewing across the state’s historic theaters and other venues, local film festivals, television broadcast on PBS and other channels, and schools and libraries.
Annabel said the land trust will wait until the advisory council decides various matters before accepting the county’s $10,000 grant.
“At this moment, the project is still alive and we’re proceeding that way,” he said Friday. “It’s a big, expensive idea. Who’s going to be able to put resources into it, and how much, is a big question still. We are really appreciative of Pitkin County taking a bit of a ‘leap of faith’ but we don’t expect to spend any of that money unless we do the trailer.
“If we can’t raise the money for pre-production we’ll be giving the money back.”