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Flagstaff Filmmaker Discusses New Documentary, "Our Canyon Lands"

Justin Clifton

Canyon Lands National Park in southern Utah is a preserve for countless archaeological and cultural artifacts. It also sits atop highly sought after oil deposits. That dichotomy is the focus of a new documentary by Flagstaff filmmaker Justin Clifton. Our Canyon Lands explores the history and current challenges of land management near the park. Thursday night is the Flagstaff premiere of Clifton's film. He spoke with Arizona Public Radio's Aaron Granillo about the documentary.

Aaron Granillo: Can you give us some background on Canyonlands National Park? What sort of cultural ties does it have to the land up there in Utah?

Justin Clifton: The cultural ties in that landscape go back tens of thousands of years. Some of the earliest archaeological finds in the area date back 12,000 years to the Clovis period, and people that came across the Bering Strait. And, the cultural landscape there is amazing. I was just in the desert not too long ago, about a week and a half ago. You're just constantly coming across dwelling sites, kivas. I don't know, it's just a fascinating place.

What is the focus of your film, Our Canyon Lands?

It's really kind of looking at the pressures that exist on this landscape versus the value that exists there. This landscape has value from a cultural standpoint, which we just talked about. But, it also has a value from an environmental standpoint. This is the heart of the Colorado River. And this is a river that really supplies water for about 30 million people. To underestimate the damage that something like oil extraction could have on that watershed or uranium mining and milling or whatever you might have there is not putting enough importance on what protecting this landscape could really mean. When you look at the landscape, every minute detail is designed to get water down into the Colorado River watershed. Any disaster, oil and gas or otherwise that would happen where they might be drilling, is eventually going to make its way into that watershed. And so we have to ask ourselves, is it really worth the tiny amount of oil that's in that landscape to risk that kind of environmental disaster? 

How does your film spotlight the ideological tug of war that can go on between  economic development and protection of land? In this case, a national park.

On a number of fronts. One front, from the resource side, the company that is drilling north of Canyonlands National Park estimates there to be about 100 million barrels of oil, which sounds like a lot. But, when you actually factor that in to how much oil we use per day in the United States, that's enough oil to really fuel the American oil habit for about a week. And, do we really want to kind of ruin this wonderful landscape, this watershed, this cultural resource for one week's worth of oil? And the other side is the number of jobs created by the recreation economy far outweigh the number of jobs created by oil and gas. Now, there's the discussion that has to take place here, which is a lot of recreation requires oil and gas to happen. Fuel to get to the locations, to build the bikes, to build the climbing gear. Whatever it might be. But, it really is, for me, what it comes down to is what do we want to remain in this world once we're done going after all these resources?

This is your first film, and you're in your early 40s. What inspired you to want to become a filmmaker now at this point in your life?

I've always been interested in media. I studied journalism in college, worked in television news. I always saw the power of telling stories visually and in writing. But, it really took kind of another major turn in my life that made me decide just to stop putting it off, and that was my father was diagnosed with cancer. And, realizing how short life is and how we can continually put off these things that we're drawn to do until we just never do them. I didn't want to do that anymore. I just decided that now is the time to go for it, and it's working out. It's been a really positive decision for me.   

Our Canyon Lands will screen at the Green Room in downtown Flagstaff on Thursday, August 6th. Doors open at 6, and the film starts at 6:30. It's free and open to the public. A Q&A with Justin Clifton will follow.

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