Why Robert Redford Wants to Save the West (and the Rest of the Planet)
Forty years ago, at the time of the first Earth Day, Robert Redford had just skyrocketed to fame in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when he got the idea to ride the old outlaw trail -- a string of hideouts where rustlers and bandits once gathered, safe from the law, protected by natural geography. Redford spent five weeks winding down the Montana border, crossing Wyoming, and then passing through Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. "As technology thrusts us relentlessly into the future," he wrote, documenting the trip in National Geographic, "I find myself, perversely, more interested in the past. We seem to have lost something -- something vital, something of individuality and passion. That may be why we tend to view the western outlaw, rightly or not, as a romantic figure."
Insofar as Redford himself is a romantic figure, it may be because he has spent much of his career seeking to restore this missing piece of our humanity. A trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council since 1974, he was an early proponent of renewable energy, such as solar power, and has been a fierce protector of Western wildlands. Escaping the director's chair, where he's currently at work on his latest film, The Conspirator, he spoke with OnEarth about the changing face of environmentalism and how the arts and conservation may converge.
>> ONEARTH MULTIMEDIA: Hear excerpts from this interview and see images from Redford's life and career
What was your impression of the first Earth Day back in 1970?
At that time, I had been involved in environmental activism probably for about a year and a half, pretty well centered on the passing of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 [which requires federal agencies to consider the impact of their actions on the environment]. So Earth Day was a sort of celebration of what a lot of people thought would be a new movement. It got a lot of attention, mostly from young people. Then it flagged for a while. It didn't have the sustained momentum. As a result, I think the Earth Days that have occurred since then have not had the power of the original.
At the time, Earth Day had a lot to do with infusing the energy from the student anti-Vietnam War protests into the environmental cause. How have you seen ecological activism evolve since the 1970s? Looking at the younger generation today, do you see a big difference in how they engage with these issues?
I do. What happened was that, as the post-Vietnam movement began to die away, it was slowly, through the late seventies and early eighties, replaced by a whole different way of thinking. It was a time when greed was licensed by the government, when Reagan came in and said, "Get what you can." And that, in turn, seemed to produce in the nineties a younger generation that was more apathetic and more cynical. Now I think that generation has been replaced by a new energy, which I find quite exciting. Despite skeptics on the global warming issue, it's to me undeniable that human effort has created a great consequence. I think young people are saying, "Wait a second, before you destroy our planet, we want to step in and play a role in protecting it."
What galvanized you to become part of the environmental movement so early -- before it was really a "movement" at all?
There were three events going back to my childhood growing up in Los Angeles. One was that when I was about 15, I went to work at Yosemite National Park. That was a transformative experience for me, because I could actually be in the environment -- in particular, one that was just so overwhelmingly beautiful. Nature had carved it. It was like nature's own sculpture -- and I was a part of it.
The next big event was watching the city I knew as a child, Los Angeles, disappearing under my feet. When World War II ended and money was returned to the overall infrastructure of the United States, suddenly development was rampant and out of control. And there was no land-use plan. Los Angeles had a kind of gold rush mentality, where people were flooding into the city. As a result, a lot of the natural beauty that I grew up with as a little kid disappeared quickly. Cement replaced grass. Bad air replaced good air. Traffic replaced wide streets. There were so many changes that it had a pretty profound effect on me. I felt like I was losing a place that was my home.
The third thing was going to a conference in Vail, Colorado, in 1973, where I saw something put on a screen that I thought was so obviously simple and clear and irrefutable. They showed what the United States commitment was to nonrenewable energy sources -- oil, gas, coal, so on -- and the amount of energy and interest that was put to new energy sources -- wind, solar, and whatnot. It was so imbalanced. I said, how can anyone not see where this is going to go if it doesn't get rebalanced? I think I made a commitment then to reach to a higher point of political activism.
Around the same time, the state of Utah was planning a road through this particular canyon that was very beautiful. They were going to try to put an eight-lane freeway in there, and I thought, this is so stupid. Why would they kill the beauty of the natural environment with a road that's so unnecessary? That got me galvanized.
Since then, you've been a strong advocate for preserving Western wilderness. What role do you see the West playing in our American identity? Even for those of us who don't live in these landscapes, what's at stake in confronting their loss?
The West is probably the last large available space in America, and it's already diminished. There's certainly no frontier left. There's just what used to be a frontier that we like to sloganeer about. When there's an IMAX movie that shows the Great American West, there are these anthems that play over helicopter shots of beautiful, natural landscape. We're also, at the same time, destroying it pretty rapidly. It's kind of a horse race as to how much people will wake up and figure out a way to preserve what can be preserved while still developing -- because whether we like it or not, we're a development-oriented society, and so that has to happen. But at what point to do you say we better start balancing protection as well, otherwise there will be no resources left?
It's interesting that you bring up the way the West is portrayed in film. I wonder what you think the role of film and narrative should be in conservation?
I think it's a very strong one. When I was filming Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid near Zion National Park, I realized you could use film to say, "Gosh, isn't this beautiful territory? All of it is under threat now."
In portraying these landscapes that you love though, is there a risk of romanticizing them and drawing more people into the wilderness? I was surprised to read that your 1992 movie A River Runs Through It actually attracted a lot of novice fishermen to Western rivers.
I know! It's kind of ironic. Film history is very problematic in that it has romanticized the West since the get-go. It is a romantic place, but in a far different way than Hollywood has presented it. You have to be in it and experience it to know exactly what that value is. It's tough, and it's raw, and nature is unforgiving in certain ways, and beautiful in other ways.
As we approach the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, I wonder what you see as the most pressing environmental issue of our day.
If I had to step back and say, what is the single greatest threat that affects the entire planet, not just individuals of various communities, it would be global warming. I think that's undisputable. It's pretty clear what the cause is -- it's human activity. And I think it's time to put aside the skeptics' argument and accept the fact that we all better start doing whatever we can before it's too late. I think it's doable, but we've already lost a lot of time and a lot of our resources.
You've been promoting renewable energy for decades. In 1978, you helped establish "Sun Day," the solar equivalent of Earth Day, meant to rally support for solar power. What happened to that?
That was too early. It was one day where you would follow the sun from its rising in the East to its setting in the West, and the television news channels would cover various events going on across the country. It didn't go anywhere. People just were not ready to focus on it. Big Industry still had an iron grip on the media and people's way of thinking. It's always jobs versus the environment, and we were trying to say, no, it doesn't have to be that.
When you've been at it forty years or so, you're going to have some wins and losses. The losses always hurt, but they're to be expected. Certain things have been too soon, too early. You get all excited, because you see something clear as a bell, and you think, gosh, we can get the word out, and it will have an effect. Very often you're wrong. It takes a long time for things to evolve out of one thing into another.
View more photographs of Robert Redford's favorite western landscapes at LIFE.com.