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Robert Redford Looks to Nature for Inspiration

By Amanda Griscom Little
Mother Earth News
Mar 09, 2006

Actor Robert Redford (Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

Robert Redford has racked up an impressive resume: He has received two Oscars, appeared in 34 films, directed six, and produced 25. His lesser-known achievements however, 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.

When 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." After graduating from high school, Redford went to work in Yosemite National Park for a year, then studied geology at the University of Colorado. On a whim, the 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.

Redford has developed Sundance, both the resort and its extensions, with foresight and a philanthropic spirit. At Sundance, Redford provides a refuge for artistic freethinking and political innovation -- a timely goal in a period of partisan conflict and legislative stalemate. Last July 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.

"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 a sea of 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."

In His Own Backyard

Sundance, Utah, is in a pristine wilderness one hour south of Salt Lake City. Sundance Village consists of a cluster of quaint and low-profile wooden lodges that accommodate the resort's restaurants, conference rooms and the offices for the Sundance Institute.

"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 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, a rustic restaurant at the heart of the resort. In the late '60s, it 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."

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 the land in its natural state. In 1997, he 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."

Empowering Communities

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.

Redford's movies also have championed 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 the 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. Instead of dwelling on the big picture, let's pull it down to a manageable scale. 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."

Excerpted from Mother Earth News magazine, the original guide to living wisely. Read the full story at motherearthnews.com or call 800-234-3368 to subscribe. Copyright 2005 by Ogden Publications, Inc.