A few years ago, even my closest friends were skeptical. I was leaving the State Senate to raise money for a film that would market an epic conservation effort out West to an urban audience in an attempt to heal 100 years of racial wounds and restore an iconic fishery. Some people said I was taking a big risk to win over people who wouldn’t care.
I confess, when you put it all into one sentence, it does sound like a risk. But I believed that a wrong had to be made right, so I set out to make a world-class film about the 300-mile Klamath River, where one of the West’s greatest fishing runs had been all but destroyed. Stretching from Oregon to Northern California, the Klamath is a place torn apart by racism and the exclusion of tribal communities, and a place where some of America’s greatest agricultural leaders live. I hoped it could be a place of healing and bravery, too.
I wanted “A River Between Us” to speak to an audience who takes the subway to work, because if I could get them to care about the Klamath, I believed we could accomplish a very complex set of goals. First, we wanted to tell the very personal stories of the people who rely on the river, like farmers, anglers, and the tribes, and how these groups have come together to create a historic water rights compromise for the good of all. Using the film to score support, our hope was to begin working on the largest salmon and steelhead restoration in U.S. history.
Little did I know that most films don’t get finished or distributed. With the confidence that comes with ignorance, I got the film completed, paid for, and it comes out on October 13 (pre-order it on iTunes now.) It’s beautiful and I’m really proud of the story. Festival audiences have fallen in love with the characters and the notion that if you heal people, together we can heal the river.
Politics follows culture, so we tried to change culture. We’ve created momentum for the Klamath restoration project through social media, which makes the issue legitimate. For years, I’ve been on the receiving end of letters, petition requests, and write-your-Senator campaigns. They are good, but never as effective as showing a politician that culture has shifted right under their feet, and you’ve made it easy for them to get right on the bus and take credit. I made 26 behind-the-scenes clips of the film production and then spent two years lining up all my friends in conservation, culture, social justice, and politics to push them out. Every Facebook like, share, and send makes “A River Between Us” and the Klamath River restoration culturally relevant. That makes this a much easier ask, with four times the political muscle.
I recently put this entire issue on the President’s desk, assuming I’d only get 60 seconds to make the case for a lifetime worth of work. I boiled down the entire issue into a single sentence: With the President’s existing authority, we could remove four dams, provide liability assurances to industry, guarantee water for farmers, create trust between water-users and area tribes, and complete the largest salmon and steelhead restoration in U.S. history. To leverage a film, and say with confidence that America is talking about it, I had to make sure that every side, not just special interests or lobby organizations, were represented in the political push to save this river. My team has men and women, Republicans and Democrats, East and West coast, by design.
In the end, it’s as true today as it ever was: You can accomplish anything if you give all the credit away. I want everyone who has helped, from President Obama and Secretary Jewell right down to that college kid who sent me 20 bucks through the crowd-source campaign, to take credit. I’m happy knowing that our film is not the final chapter of the story about one of the West’s greatest rivers.
Jason A. Atkinson is a public servant, filmmaker, author, consultant, and passionate outdoorsman. Atkinson served in the Oregon legislature for more than 14 years, and was a candidate for Governor. He took a sabbatical from public life to make the film “A River Between Us,” which will be released in October 2015. He writes on public land, conservation, fish, and wildlife issues for various publications and is the author of “Inside Out: Stories of Oregon’s stewards, unsung heroes of the land. Field & Stream named him a Hero of Conservation in 2015.