Local filmmakers’ project reaps timely exposure | AspenTimes.com

Local filmmakers’ project reaps timely exposure

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OLD SNOWMASS – A husband-and-wife filmmaking crew from Old Snowmass is getting an excellent chance to enhance the exposure of their latest project thanks to Ken Burns.

Chelsea Congdon and James Brundige of First Light Films recently completed a documentary called “Forever Wild: Celebrating America’s Wilderness.” Numerous PBS stations around the country are broadcasting it this fall as a complement to Burns’ highly-anticipated national park series, which starts airing Sunday evening. It is often being shown right before or right after installments of Burns’ series.

(“Forever Wild” will first be aired on the Denver PBS available in the Roaring Fork Valley at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 30.)

Congdon and Brundige have concentrated for more than a decade on making films that try to help people understand the wonders of the world and why they are worth preserving. They started working in 2005 to tell the story of U.S. Wilderness areas – highlighting some spectacular landscapes and the uniquely-American process used to set aside those lands.

The Wilderness Act was passed in September 1964 with humble beginnings. About 9 million acres around the country initially received the special protection which prohibits all mechanized uses. That included about 80,000 acres of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

But the Wilderness Act paved the way for citizens to petition their government to set aside additional land. Now, 110 million acres in the continental U.S. and Alaska have been designated Wilderness, including 700,000 acres in the White River National Forest around Aspen.

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“Forever Wild” tells the story of three citizen efforts that preserved special places. One segment chronicles the efforts of Connie Harvey, Joy Caudill and the late Dottie Fox to expand Wilderness around Aspen. Another looks at Lynn Ryan’s dedication over two years to preserve the Lost Coast of Northern California. She rented out her house and lived in her garage to save money to fund the Wilderness lobbying effort. The third segment looks at creation of a Wilderness area in New Hampshire. The land was trammeled by man, Congdon said, but it “re-wilded” when given a chance.

The film is narrated by Robert Redford, the legendary actor known for his conservation efforts. It’s a testament to the film’s quality that Redford agreed to donate his time.

Congdon and Brundige made several trips into the Wilderness areas that their subjects successfully preserved. They got the “inside scoop” on why the areas are special and how they were saved.

“Forever Wild” features lots of spectacular scenery footage shot by Brundige, the director of photography and editor for First Light Films. “We put as much eye candy in there that would fit,” said Congdon, the producer and director. (Steve Alldredge is a third member of the team as writer and associate producer.)

But the film is more than pretty places. “As a filmmaker, I think people appreciate people,” Congdon said. “The story about Wilderness is a story about people.”

There is no better way to get a viewer to appreciate the preservation of the special places than by telling an interesting story of how they got saved.

Caudill, Harvey and Fox – known as the Maroon Belles – harnessed volunteers from the Aspen area to canvass the backcountry for Wilderness-quality lands. They launched a tenacious, grassroots effort through the fledgling Aspen Wilderness Workshop to lobby Colorado’s Congressional delegation to introduce bills to make it happen.

Congdon said she isn’t distressed that the latest preservation effort, called the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign, has sparked a high level of public debate. The process works best when everyone gets their chance to influence the decision-makers. Wilderness debate is the true definition of participation because representatives ranging from environmentalists to mountain bikers, motorized travelers and logging, mining and gas companies get involved.

“It’s one of the most democratic things we engage in,” Congdon said.

The film itself doesn’t overtly encourage people to work for additional Wilderness. PBS wants neutral films. “They aren’t comfortable with advocacy pieces,” Congdon said.

Burns is an exception to the rule. His latest series unabashedly celebrates the national park system as “America’s Best Idea.” “He’s allowed to have an opinion because he’s Ken Burns,” Congdon said with a laugh.

Instead, “Forever Wild” strives to inspire people by documenting the efforts that have been made to preserve some of the country’s wild lands. Congdon said she hopes viewers appreciate that Wilderness exists – regardless of whether they are Aspen residents who actually use the wild lands or they are urban dwellers who will never get the opportunity.

scondon@aspentimes.com