On Set: Two Local Short Films Masterfully Tackle the Conflict Between Recreation and Conservation

KHOL film critic Jeff Counts reviews a complementary pair of films about access to the wild spaces of Western Wyoming.
Local short films
“The Palisades Project” and “Denizens of the Steep” address perennial debates about access to public land and how those lands are used. (Palisades Project/Wyoming Wilderness Association [left]; Orijin Media [right])

by | Mar 29, 2021 | Culture, Film & TV

Depending on who you talk to, conservation and recreation can seem either fully complementary or not complementary at all. Reasonable middle ground is so hard to identify, let alone claim.

Jackson Hole is a locale where these issues rise to the surface on a regular basis, thanks to increasing pressure on the resources that make it so special. So, with crowd sizes and available space likely to continue in their opposite statistical directions, that middle ground is more important than ever. Two recent local short films are attempting to shed new light on the topic. They approach it from different sporting disciplines, but both rely on solid documentary techniques to make their cases.

Denizens of the Steep” was directed by local filmmaker Zach Montes and effectively employs a diverse set of perspectives to set its stage. The Teton range is home to one of the country’s most intrepid backcountry ski communities, as well as an isolated bighorn sheep population that now numbers less than 100. There is little doubt, according to the film, that the sharp uptick in extreme ski traffic in the area has had an effect on the animals.

Like Al Gore’s cherry-picker from “An Inconvenient Truth,” clever documentaries usually have an aha moment. For “Denizens of the Steep,” it comes at the halfway point when a graphic of the current sheep habitat is overlaid with the area’s most popular backcountry ski routes. It’s an incredible visual, one that makes our impact on their fragile foothold very clear. The general message of this 10-minute film is clear and shared by everyone interviewed—enthusiasts and scientists alike: Be aware. Be respectful. Be part of the solution. The only open conflict in this narrative is with the potential viewership, which the makers hope includes other skiers with open minds.

A fundamental clash of ideals is much more obvious in “The Palisades Project,” which premiered virtually on Friday, March 26, during an event hosted at the Center for the Arts in Jackson. Pitched as a nuanced exploration of an official Wilderness designation and all it entails, this local endeavor lays out the positions of various stakeholders fairly before leaning definitively into the conservation cause.

Palisades Wilderness Study Area

The Palisades Wilderness Study Area spans the Wyoming-Idaho border and is one of the least fragmented landscapes in the lower 48 states not yet officially designated as Wilderness. (Ben Kraushaar)

The Palisades Wilderness Study Area is a remote study area on the Wyoming-Idaho border that comprises one of our last stretches of unbroken but unprotected wild country. An official Wilderness classification would go a long way towards keeping it pristine, but the very idea has upset many in Jackson’s robust mountain biking and snow machine communities. Most of the onscreen voices agree that the impasse is a result of not completely understanding the other side’s intentions. The all-or-nothing passions that make up this struggle are keeping compromise at bay so far, but “The Palisades Project” hopes to inspire it all the same. The beautiful camerawork, tight sound design and excellent editing in this film do a good job of making the land itself seem worth fighting over. And while it’s clearly a conservationist product, the olive branch they are extending to the recreationist crowd certainly reads as genuine.

As an avid mountain biker with a green streak myself, I often feel guilty about the way we riders treat these mountains. Here’s hoping everyone can get back to work on a settlement, because this effort could serve as a template for future land use battles in our beautiful state.

Both of these short movies bring a great deal of polish to the critical concern they share. With fantastic shot-making and thoughtful pacing, they are telling a defining story of the American West—and nobody but locals could have done it so well.

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About Jeff Counts

Before moving to Jackson in 2019, Jeff spent five years reviewing movies as co-host of the public access television program "Big Movie Mouth-Off." When not focused on film, Jeff writes about opera and co-hosts the classical music interview podcast "Ghost Light."

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