Robert Redford's Quest

This lifelong conservationist Robert Redford looks to nature for the inspiration to change the world.
By Amanda Griscom Little
December 2005/January 2006
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Robert Redford takes in the scenery of Sundance, Utah, which he describes as a refuge for artistic freethinking and political innovation.
Photo courtesy FRED HAYES
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When Robert Redford was 29 years old and making his debut on Broadway, he couldn’t shake his longing for a wilderness retreat from the hustle of New York City. Having grown up in a working-class neighborhood in Southern California, Redford had come to know nature as his way out, “a release from chaos and confinement, an incredible liftoff.” On a whim, young Redford trekked into rural Utah and bought a two-acre plot in the Wasatch Mountains, shelling out his entire net worth, $500, for the land.

Now, Redford is 68 years old and over the years his investment has grown into almost 5,000 acres. At its center is a scenically spectacular and sustainable resort named after the Sundance Kid, his role as the sidekick to Paul Newman’s Butch Cassidy in the classic 1969 film.

One afternoon last summer, Redford dismounted his horse and strolled the cobblestone paths of Sundance Village toward the Tree Room, a rustic restaurant at the heart of the resort. Sporting weathered blue jeans, cowboy boots and a slightly bowlegged swagger, he looked like he was en route to meet Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday at the OK Corral. In fact, he was headed to a meeting with former Vice President Al Gore, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and dozens of mayors from across the United States who had convened at Redford’s invitation.

Just before entering the dining hall — a beautiful wood-paneled room with an ancient oak tree growing up through the center and floor-to-ceiling windows — Redford walked past a passage inscribed on the wall:

This place in the mountains,
amid nature’s casualness toward death
and birth,
is the perfect host for the inspiration of ideas:
harsh at times, life-threatening in its winters of destruction,
but tender in attention to the details
of every petal of every wildflower resurrected in the spring.
Nature and creativity obey the same laws,
to the same end: life.

The words are Redford’s own — something he scrawled in his journal years ago. “I was a bit self-conscious about putting that on the wall,” he winces. “I thought maybe it was corny, or grandiose. But my kids found it and thought it was important, so I got out-voted.”

Cultivating Innovation

Decades after founding Sundance, Redford has racked up an impressive resume: He has appeared in 34 films, directed six and produced 25. He has been nominated for several Oscars, winning one for directing Ordinary People and a second as a lifetime achievement award. His lesser-known achievements include extensive work that helped pave the way for important environmental laws, including those that make clean air and water a right for every American.

Redford also has developed Sundance — both the resort and its extensions — with foresight and a philanthropic spirit. The Sundance brand represents a broad suite of entities: the Sundance Film Festival, which has become synonymous with independent cinema; the cable channel and DVD/videotape line that distributes independent films; the nonprofit Sundance Institute that produces both the film festival and year-round programs for emerging artists; and the place itself — where the programs are held and where about 500,000 people visit each year to use its hiking trails, ski slopes and other amenities.

At Sundance, Redford provides a refuge for artistic freethinking and political innovation — a timely goal in a period of partisan conflict and legislative stalemate. Since 1985, he has held a number of summits on environmental policy. Last July — with the help of Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and the nonprofit ICLEI (International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives) — Redford hosted a three-day conference on global warming for a bipartisan group of 46 U.S. mayors who represent about 10 million people. The focus was on local programs to curb greenhouse gas emissions in the face of federal inaction. Redford has become well-acquainted with legislative negligence on this issue. In 1989, long before scientific consensus emerged on climate change, he held "Greenhouse Glasnost" at Sundance to discuss emerging research and evidence. " I t fell on deaf ears," he says of this and other efforts to encourage federal action. "The arrogant dismissal of the facts on global warming by U.S. leadership has been pretty painful for me to watch." But as evidenced by the mayoral summit, local governments have given him new hope. "You here are closest to the people," Redford said as he welcomed the mayors to Sundance. "I've always believed that the best and most significant change comes from the grass roots.

I sincerely hope that by removing the discussion from the political fray and placing it in a wilderness setting, we can all see the issues more clearly and experience a sort of alchemy. A context like this makes conversation freer and more spirited. It makes visions for change more expansive." After briefings on current science, the implications of climate change and tutorials on emissions-trading programs, many of the mayors agreed to join a bigger coalition of 170 other local leaders who have pledged to adopt Kyoto Protocol targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. "What gives me hope is that in politics, baby steps can lead to sea change," Redford said at the summit's closing ceremony. "The whole political system can be terribly sluggish, stalemated — the barriers can seem insurmountable. But then little pockets of inspiration slowly begin opening up, joining together and building a collective force that can suddenly give way to tremendous change. That, I hope and believe, is what's under way." 

Hands-on Experience

Sundance, Utah, is in a pristine wilderness one hour south of Salt Lake City, nestled in the North Fork Canyon just beneath Mount Timpanogos. Miles of tumbling creeks, snow-crowned peaks and towering pines surround Sundance Village, which consists of a cluster of quaint and lowprofile wooden lodges that accommodate the resorts restaurants, conference rooms and the offices for the Sundance Institute. Connected to the village by footpaths are 100 cabins that house up to 450 guests. The simple wooden lodges and cabins are humble in appearance but outfitted with creature comforts that include whirlpool bathtubs and wireless Internet access. In the winter, Sundance Village has the cozy feel of a Swiss ski town.

 In the summer, the resort sits among emerald-green meadows dusted with trillium and columbine, crystal alpine lakes, a 60-foot waterfall, rivers for fly-fishing and trails for horseback riding. Thanks to the Uinta National Forest that abuts Redford's land, wildlife — ranging from hawks and bald eagles to mountain lions and elk — is abundant. "My dream was to make Sundance a mixture of old and new, lush and spare, sophisticated and primitive, like art itself," Redford says. In this case, it's art that looks like it was plucked off the set of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In the case of Above: Robert Redford engages with filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu at the Sundance Institute. Top: May 1978 — Redford gives a speech at the United Nations Plaza in New York to promote solar energy. the Village's Owl Bar, it nearly was: Redford salvaged the walls, booths, fixtures and swinging doors from an abandoned saloon in Wyoming that was once frequented by the real-life Cassidy and his Hole in the Wall Gang. Redford's own sweat equity went into reconstructing the saloon, as well as the magnificent stonework and wood paneling in the Tree Room.

In the late '60s, the dining area was the first structure he built on the property — much of it with his own hands. The work was part of an effort to appease investors who had agreed to help him buy 3,000 acres of land surrounding his two-acre plot, on the condition that he create a revenue stream. "The experience of doing it myself was absolutely pivotal — I think that shaped me forever," Redford says, adding that it instilled in him the entrepreneurial spirit that's at the core of his career and taught him that "the most gratifying things in life are its humblest, simplest pleasures." Alas, the restaurant didn't prove to be profitable enough for his investors, who decided they wanted to sell the land to the highest bidder. Appalled by the prospect of turning his dream over to development, Redford bought out his partners for several million dollars. The acquisition plunged him into debt that took years to repay. To Redford, however, it was worth it. "Knowing that the land wouldn't be indiscriminately developed was perhaps the greatest sense of satisfaction I've ever had," he says. Of the nearly 5,000 acres Redford owns, he plans to build on only 100 and protect the rest with conservation easements, which legally preserve land in its natural state.

In 1997, Redford created the North Fork Preservation Alliance to work with neighboring landowners to establish easements on their properties. "I think out-of-control development is a recipe for  the demise of social civilization," he says. "I'm extremely wary of the arrogance of trying to overpower the force of nature — something that's way stronger than we are." "CALL ME BOB" Instinctively, guests and new employees address the famous actor as "Mr. Redford." "Please don't call me that," he'll say. "It's Bob, or just Redford. I'm not a 'mister,' never have been." The son of a milkman, Redford grew up in Santa Monica, Calif., in the '40s, which was a low-income neighborhood at the time. To him, it was paradise by the sea, and he spent most of his childhood in the ocean. After graduating from high school, Redford went to work in Yosemite National Park for a year. After that, he enrolled at the University of Colorado, where he studied geology. "I loved the idea that I could travel great distances alone and be entertained," he says. "I could look around at the mountains or canyons or plains and understand exactly how they were formed and how they came to be." Though a self-described "bleeding-heart greenie," Redford is the first to admit he's not an environmental purist: He's a former race-car driver and a former owner of multiple SUVs; currendy he's a frequent-flyer and owns a home outside of Utah. But now in his autumn years, Redford has jettisoned cars for horses while in Sundance (about six months out of the year). He also goes to great lengths to operate his resort according to sustainable principles.

In 1997, he hired environmental professional Julie Mack to create and oversee a sustainability strategy for the resort, which includes everything from curbing its greenhouse gas emissions to developing management plans for invasive species. Mack is in the process of having existing Sundance Village structures retrofitted with energy-efficiency measures and has pledged to develop all new buildings according to the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards of the green building industry. In 2004, Sundance partnered with Utah Power's Blue Sky Program and the Utah Clean Energy  Alliance to purchase 10 percent of its electricity from wind power. Redford challenged Sundance's neighbors to match the commitment, and the community responded; the total investment in wind power will annually offset 640 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. The Village has a rigorous recycling program, including a glass kiln that artisans use to convert bottles into art and housewares. During spring and summer months, the restaurants and cafes use fruits and vegetables from neighboring farms, and Mack plans weekly food co-ops where community residents can pick up local produce.

In winter months, Sundance buys organic produce from California; all-natural meat comes year-round from California-based Niman Ranch. But Redford's environmental advocacy reaches well beyond Sundance. In the '70s he was a founding member of the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and lobbied heavily for the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. As far back as 1975, he produced short films and documentaries promoting solar power. Redford remains a trustee of NRDC; the organization recently named its new Santa Monica, Calif., office building after him — it is "the greenest building in America" according to the U.S. Green Building Council. For decades, Redford also has supported pro-environment political candidates, mostly at state and local levels. "I decided the best place for me to participate in politics, as a so-called celebrity, was local for two reasons: One, I felt that the national stage was too attractive for people in my business to jump onto," he says. " I did not think we were that qualified to mount the bully pulpit and compete with politicians — that requires years and years of study and involvement. Two, you can't discount the issue of resentment — celebrities are both adored and resented." But Redford doesn't blame those who resent stardom: "Many Americans are understandably wary of the kind of privilege associated with celebrities — people with easy lifestyles who live in the capital of avarice, but think they can tell the masses what's right and wrong."

The Power of Storytelling

Just as nature has been an outlet for joy and creativity throughout Redford's life, so has entertainment. Not only has it been the foundation of his career, it underscores his worldview: "Whether you're talking about politics, science, religion or business, I believe what it finally boils down to is storytelling." From the beginning of time, stories have been the vehicles for passing down values, legacy and identity, he says. That's why "all of the programs at Sundance have been and will always be about the power of storytelling. It is fundamental in society. Even today, the power to shape our culture lies in the hands of the communicators who are going to tell its story." Which is why perhaps one of Redford's most lasting contributions to the environment is the celebration of the natural world he has brought to the silver screen in movies such as Jeremiah Johnson, The Milagro Beanfield War, A River Runs Through It and The Horse Whisperer. Next in that succession may be Aloft, based on Alan Tennant's book On the Wing, which chronicles the adventures of a naturalist and a pilot as they track a peregrine falcon's transcontinental migration. Redford is producing Aloft and says it will be "an adventurous tribute to the power and primacy of nature" that he hopes will "leave the audience with a greater sense of humility and respect for the wild." the power of individuals to change the course of history and politics. A prime example is All the President's Men, which chronicles the story of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post journalists who exposed die Watergate scandal of the Richard Nixon presidency. Redford produced and starred in the film, which he describes as a "tale of empowerment, showing what two guys on the lowest rung of the ladder could do through sheer hard work to take down the highest position in the land." Redford says that Americans need tales of empowerment now more than ever before. "In all my years in politics and entertainment, I have never seen the American leadership at once so arrogant and so negligent, particularly on matters of the environment," he says. "I have never seen the political system as a whole so constipated." Climate change is chief among his concerns. "Never has the world faced a greater environmental, economic or security threat than global warming," he says. "We can't let America play Nero while the planet burns. But there's a growing sense of environmental responsibility and desire for change among Americans that needs to be encouraged."

 So Redford is not giving up, despite his concerns about the challenges posed by global warming. "Instead of dwelling on the big picture, let's pull it down to a manageable scale," he says. "Let's bring it home, right down into our communities." Redford adds that if each family and community addresses the situation with available solutions — by reducing their energy consumption, investing in efficiency, carpooling, recycling and voting for informed politicians — "together we can solve this problem."


Amanda Griscom Little wrote about environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in the October/November 2004 issue. Her weekly column on energy and the environment, "Muckraker," appears in Grist Magazine.



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