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Rich Landers: ‘Environmentalists’ eventually forced out of their closets

Strip mining for coal has stirred a debate pitting jobs against the environment. (Matthew Brown / Associated Press)
Strip mining for coal has stirred a debate pitting jobs against the environment. (Matthew Brown / Associated Press)

What would you do if something threatened your favorite mountain?

While most people don’t do much more than complain and feel sorry for themselves when facing demise off something so special or even essential in their lives, a few are inspired to take action.

The 25 films screened in Spokane last weekend in the Banff Mountain Film Festival’s World Tour featured a lot of footage of people fulfilling their quest for adventure in mountains on bikes, skis and climbing routes.

One of the films – just one – centered on the question of what to do if an industry begins taking away your mountains.

“Walk On the Mountain,” a student documentary, follows Junior Walk, an anti-coal activist in southern West Virginia, as he exposes the ravages of mining that extracts coal by removing the tops of his region’s mountains. These are the mountains Walk and his family have roamed and hunted for generations.

The 19-minute film, produced by students of Ithaca College, debates the benefits and consequences of mountaintop mining to the people and the environment.

The politics of coal mining were briefly explored with short clips of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump promising that coal industry jobs would increase if he were elected.

The filmmakers allowed Junior Walk to counter with the statement that coal industry jobs are going to decrease no matter what because of cheap natural gas and increased mechanization.

That was pretty much it for the political component.

But that was enough to prompt at least one film festival viewer to complain.

I had a minor role among the five people who selected the 25 films for showing over three nights at the Bing Crosby Theater from roughly 35 film films licensed for the tour.

Because of that, I received a cordial letter of protest from a man named Bo, who has been attending the Banff films in Spokane since his dad brought him to the screenings as a teenager. Bo continues the tradition with his children.

“I am writing this as (Saturday) night really disappointed me,” he said in an email. “You choose to play a political film regarding the coal mining in West Virginia.

“I felt that there was no place for this film in the tour that comes to Spokane. … I’m sure you could have selected a film that didn’t have a political stance in it.

“Personally I go to the film festival to see outdoor and inspirational films, not to be reminded of what is going on in the political world. Football has been ruined by this in 2017, and I now have a bad taste in my mouth for the film festival because of this.”

Bo said he’s wondering if he will bring his kids back to view the annual festival’s collection of often exhilarating films that explore pursuits in the mountains, on the waters and in the skies.

He contends the recreation is the common ground, not the ground itself.

“Regardless of our view we can all appreciate the outdoors, the amazing accomplishments of individuals, as well as this beautiful scenery and cinematography from this beautiful earth,” he wrote. “I’m sure you have your reasoning for selecting “Walk On the Mountain,” but I have to say personally I don’t feel it belonged one bit.”

As a member of the selection group, which seeks a mix of films within the restraints of film lengths, I can say there was considerable discussion about including “Walk on the Mountain.”

“That’s not what most people come to see at the Banff festival,” I said in my first reaction when local host Phil Bridgers of Mountain Gear asked what I thought of including it.

A World Tour staffer from Banff, Suzanne White, won me over when she boiled down the film’s theme to that one question: “It’s asking people what they would do if somebody or something threatened their mountain?” she said.

That theme applies to all of us who recreate in the mountains, whether we’re climbers, skiers, anglers, hunters, foragers…

“Walk on the Mountain,” in that sense, may have been the most universally pertinent film in the three-day lineup.

The documentary poignantly showed how coal mining was dividing communities. Junior Walk didn’t consider himself an environmentalist a decade ago. He was forced into it despite threats to his life.

Regardless of the politics, a sportsman who isn’t an environmentalist is a fool, or at least uniformed.

The E word makes people squirm because political factions have categorized the term as extreme.

Tree spiking and monkey-wrenching are radical actions, but there’s nothing extreme about being, as the dictionary defines, “a person who is concerned with or advocates the protection of the environment.”

If your well or water source goes dry or is contaminated, you’ll likely fall into the category of environmentalist very quickly – regardless of how you vote.

Some anglers came out as environmentalists 35 years ago in a showdown with logging and mining that had decimated more than 30 percent of the spawning habitat for prized native cutthroat trout in the upper Coeur d’Alene River.

Changes were made in timber sales, an unmanageable network of eroding logging roads was scaled back, anglers backed catch and release rules – and the fishery has prospered to be one of the best cutthroat streams in the country.

A hunter who doesn’t think healthy habitat is essential for deer, elk or pheasants is, well, uninformed.

The big gathering of bald eagles enjoyed by thousands of viewers every fall at Lake Coeur d’Alene is brought to you by environmentalists who sounded the alarm on pesticides and got eagles listed as endangered species decades ago.

Expansion of the downhill ski area on Mount Spokane brought on protest, legal challenges and compromise as people worked out their differences between preservation and recreation development. All of the people involved answered the call because they considered Mount Spokane “their” mountain.

Being an environmentalist is just as important now as it was before passage of the Clean Water Act.

“Walk on the Mountain” is a 19-minute reminder that if we turn our backs, our playgrounds or even our means of subsistence may be gone when we turn around again.