In conversation with Bluedot reporter Victoria Thomas, the filmmakers behind a stunning documentary discuss the species they honed in on, and defend the sometimes extreme conservationists fighting to protect them.
I first met Scott Saunders soon after I landed in Los Angeles in 1985. We both worked for a non-profit ridesharing agency located on the Miracle Mile, which in those long-ago, pre-Uber and pre-Lyft days meant matching commuters into carpools, and persuading companies to organize vanpools in hopes of untangling LA’s infamous gridlock.
We were both eco-minded. And naïve.
I went on to work as the communications manager for the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) during the construction of the Red Line, LA’s first subway, a smoggy-eyed venture which has since collapsed into dismal and dangerous defeat. Scott departed for my hood (NYC) to pursue filmmaking. And now, with several of our respective nine lives spent, we’re friends again in Los Angeles, where I live mere minutes from where Scott grew up. Through Scott, I met gifted cinematographer Oktay Ortabasi, with whom Scott has collaborated on a new documentary film, The Nature Makers. What follows is a conversation the three of us had recently in Los Angeles about their current feature documentary film, The Nature Makers. Scott Saunders is the film’s writer and director; Oktay Ortabasi is director of photography. Saunders and Ortabasi share production credit with Tatiana Detlofson.
The 70-minute film, shot on location in Nebraska, Arizona, Colorado, and South Dakota, documents three heroic interventions in the American West, (requiring heavy machinery and technology in the form of bulldozers, back-hoes, and helicopters), on behalf of the Sandhill Crane, the threatened Humpback Chub, and the Black-Tailed Prairie Dog, the latter being a highly misunderstood keystone species of the Great Plains. The filmmakers encountered the stories of these three animals through a blend of serendipity and research. Representatives of several non-profit organizations, including some who might be termed extreme conservationists, banded together to make the filming possible. These included Chuck Cooper and his team at The Crane Trust in Wood River, Nebraska; Lindsey Sterling Krank, Director of the Prairie Dog Coalition and her team based in Boulder, Colorado; and representatives from the National Park Service, The Humane Society of the United States, and Defenders of Wildlife. Apart from a small grant from the Grand Canyon Association, the documentary was entirely self-funded.
Victoria Thomas, reporting for Bluedot Living: Let’s start with the title: The Nature Makers. Is this a reflection of the very hubris that has brought such destruction onto our planet?
Scott Saunders: The film’s title is intended to provoke. Humans are often accused of “playing God.” Describing ourselves as “Nature Makers” is another aspect of this idea. We have already tampered — more than tampered — with the global ecosystem. Now we have to take similar action to undo the damage.
A century ago, and even more recently, conservation was defined as humans backing off and letting the natural world regain its balance. But that’s not enough now. We’ve gone beyond the hands-off, preservation mode. Now we need to actively intervene, so we sought out conservationists taking aggressive action to save a species as a step toward repairing much larger ecosystems.
BDL: The film opens with a giant bulldozer plowing down trees. This may upset some tree-huggers.
Oktay Ortabasi: Right. Because now, humans need to do what nature can no longer do. Today, there are 20 dams on the Platte River where Sandhill Cranes have been gathering for thousands of years. Before the dams were built, the river would flood the prairie, wiping out new growth. This was ideal for the cranes, who need flat, open land as a gathering site during their migrations. Today, the dams prevent the flooding, so saplings and shrubs pop up. If left unchecked, this growth will make the Platte inhospitable to these birds.
[Editor’s note: The Sandhill Crane is among the oldest species of bird, with fossils dating back at least two million years. An ancestral crane fossil found in Nebraska, not far from the filming site, is estimated to be about 10 million years old.]
BDL: There are so many parallels. I’ve been studying the decline of an American firefly species, which can’t reproduce because of light-pollution. The female needs total darkness to ovulate. There are fewer and fewer places on this continent where it’s truly dark at night.
SS: I had been reading The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World by Emma Marris, about people using bulldozers on the Platte River to preserve habitat. She talks about the fact that the romantic, Teddy Roosevelt-era idea of preserving nature in its pristine, pre-human state is outdated, and thwarts us from having a fuller relationship with nature. Her book puts forth the idea that we need to look forward and create this “rambunctious garden,” which is a hybrid of wild nature and intentional human management. This has to include actions like rewilding and assisted migration, on our garden planet tended by us. Reading the book, then making this film have convinced me that if we simply step back and let nature take its course, all that will be left are the highly adaptable, “weedy” species. Pigeons, rats, roaches. The raccoons and opossums in my backyard.
BDL: And the coyotes in mine. To play Devil’s Advocate, can’t the cranes just go someplace else?
OO: Possibly, although I’m not sure where. And by forcing them to change their history, we really are “making nature.”
SS: On the subject of playing God, we did encounter an attitude among farmers and ranchers that might arise from some religious background. Their idea of stewardship is that it’s somehow wrong to let the land lay fallow. This has a Protestant work ethic kind of ring, where all that matters is productivity. We met a farmer who was growing some organic cotton, without using pesticides. He apologized for the weeds in his field.
BDL: So, everybody loves the cranes. But the Humpback Chub, not so much, although those chopper shots [helicoptering the pearlescent fish into the Grand Canyon for release] are epic. Lots of sports fishermen consider the Chub no more than a bait fish, and even call it ugly. It’s funny, actually disturbing, how looks-ism enters into the preservation conversation. And, even though Prairie Dogs are so cute and squeaky and Instagram-ready, anyone who’s spent time in the West may doubt that they are in trouble.
SS: Okay, here’s the thing. People driving through Colorado see Prairie dogs on the highway medians, and figure that there’s no shortage of these animals. But that highway median may be all they have left! Their vast colonies are mostly gone. And here’s something else to chew on, so to speak, since nature is all about eating. There’s this beautiful little animal, highly endangered, that’s not in our film, called the Black-footed Ferret. It’s the only ferret native to the Americas, and it was thought to be extinct. It’s not, but it’s definitely in serious trouble. The primary reason for the endangered status is that the Black-footed Ferret needs to eat Prairie Dogs. It’s a highly specialized predator. Unlike seagulls or your friend the coyote, this animal hasn’t adapted to eating house cats and French fries. And their food source is vanishing. Now there’s a ferret school in South Dakota, where people are teaching ferrets how to be ferrets.
OO: The Prairie dog is an important story because, for generations, ranchers have claimed that horses and cattle break their legs in the burrows. But there’s zero evidence to support this.
SS: We didn’t pick the stories based on the species of animal, anyway. Although it is true that some animals are more mediagenic than others. We sought out heroic conservationists and biologists who work tirelessly to repair and offset human damage. Like Lindsey Sterling Krank’s team digging new burrows for relocated Prairie dogs after removing them from unsafe areas. It’s backbreaking work, and sometimes heartbreaking work. But they do it. This reaffirms my belief that humans are a deeply moral species. That humans are ingenious, and can be a force for good. That’s why our film is quite short on gloom. We are optimists with our eyes wide open.
BDL: How did making this film change you?
SS: Spending three freezing days and nights on the banks of the Platte in a camouflaged hut, basically a duck-blind, filming the cranes as they danced is as close to a spiritual experience as I’ve ever had. I was giddy with excitement, even though I could no longer feel my fingers and toes.
OO: I no longer eradicate gophers and voles from our yard. And I leave the wasps alone, too. I let them build their beautiful paper nests, because I learned that wasps eat the insects that make the leaves of our citrus trees curl up.
SS: I have not thought about life the same way since.Newly streaming on Kanopy, Apple iTunes, Amazon and Google Play, The Nature Makers is a presentation of Scopix and Natural Allies, in association with Film Crash. The documentary scored several pre-release filmic honors, including Winner, Best Feature, Colorado Environmental Film Festival; and was selected by Wild & Scenic Film Festival, Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and Sonoma International Film Festival.