2 Peters, 1 Doc, 1000’s of Trees in need – The Last Stand (Interview)

Happy day before Earth Day! To celebrate this occasion before tomorrow, I thought it would be best to talk about this amazing new documentary that’s out. It’s called, The Last Stand, and it talks about the effects of trees getting cut down, and show what the effects are worldwide. To illustrate this point, award-winning Canadian filmmaker Peter Von Puttkamer was sent to Fairy Creek, B.C. on behalf of ECOFLIX- a new non-profit streaming service dedicated to environmental and wildlife themes. The protest at Fairy Creek became well known in Canada and worldwide, as a place where people battled for the survival of old-growth trees, got themselves in holes, and even got arrested by the police who got pretty tough towards everyone. This assignment was a good match, because that was where Peter’s first stomping grounds were and he worked with the First Nation’s people on Vancouver Island extensively.  But that isn’t the only place he documents in the film—Peter also got footage of the Amazon and even Asian jungles. A wide variety of environmental spokespersons and protestors talked about the effects of cutting down Ancient Forests, and we also get to hear from logging industry spokespersons on the impact on loggers & factory workers , if all logging were stopped & they run out of work.

But there wasn’t just one Peter on this project, because famed actor Peter Coyote, (known for his decades of narrating Ken Burns’ Documentaries) also narrated this doc. Well known for also being an activist himself, Peter Coyote brought up some important topics and really got the point across with his explanations. The whole documentary while not super long did still have quite an impact on me, and it’s sure to have an impact on everyone else as we see the environment is disappearing.

I got the opportunity to talk to both Peter’s on Zoom and when I did, the two were happy to see each other again, even if virtually and managed to reconnect right then and there. It seems like these two are the best of friends and this interview was a great way to bring them together AND learn more about this collaborative work on The Last Stand They talked and talked and talked, to each other, and to me, and a great time was had by all. 


HNMAG: First off, what brought you two together for this?

Peter Coyote: An email! I do a lot of these because they’re important and I did this, and it was particularly good. It came through Amazon Watch, so for a long time I had some kind of unofficial visor capacity with Amazon Watch, I may still. I don’t know. But they’re one of my favourite groups, and through them The Last Stand came to me. But even before this, my good friend David Harris wrote a book called The Last Stand about old growth. I had lunch with him and he wondered if Peter read it.

Peter Von Puttkamer: Gosh, no. I haven’t read his book. So I’m from Vancouver, Canada originally. I’ve been a wildlife and environmental filmmaker and produced for all the networks, Knowledge, Discovery, and National Geographic, Animal Planet, BBC, PBS. I’ve managed to carve out a career that’s kind of as an Indie filmmaker, but have also produced mainstream documentaries on subjects that I like and want to do, and got them out to mainstream media. This one’s a little different because Ecoflix is the world’s non-profit streaming service. It’s quite a remarkable feat.  But I was so pleased to have Peter Coyote come on board. We hadn’t met before, of course his reputation precedes him. I’m so impressed with the work he did over the years for Ken Burns and it was an honour to have him come on board because he’s so involved in these causes. 


HNMAG: And it sounds like you two got along well together. Did you have similar chemistry during production?

Peter Coyote: One of the reasons that I love documentaries is because people have to be driven to do them. Nobody but maybe Ken Burns makes money off of them. But people, even Ken, he believes in it. When I see something like this, really I probably do three a month to help something out, because it’s something I believe in. If it’s something that someone like Peter worked on and invested in for years against every odd. Of course we get along, all the people that do this are completely sincere and dedicated and I feel a little embarrassed for stepping into a studio for an hour or two then these people who have been labouring at Fairy Creek through stormy weather and hiding from the cops and really putting the time in.


HNMAG: So, you narrated in all of The Last Stand. What was the process like when recording in a studio?

Peter Coyote: Because of the pandemic, we’re often hooked up by video so it’s not so unusual. I live in a little town called Sebastopol in California. It’s north of San Francisco and just south of Santa Rosa. There’s a couple of really good studios here and we just go there and there’s this place Stephen Barncard who made a lot of gold records out of this little space in his house. It’s first rate engineering in there and we just sit down and do it.

Peter Von Puttkamer: What is unusual with Peter is that he’s so invested in the production because he loves these projects so Peter actually did a pre-read for me which was really helpful and I know that he works with Ken Burns in that way doing a pre-read and it actually helps you with your edit. He made a lot of suggestions about the way we could tweak things and emphasize things more. 


HNMAG: How did you decide what important key features and facts stayed in The Last Stand and what was kept out?

Peter Von Puttkamer: Well, it’s a very complex issue, and I know you’re up in Vancouver so you’re very aware of Fairy Creek. When you really think about it, cutting down the last 3% of Old Growth forests in British Columbia, I try and tell my American friends that it’s BC, let’s not forget it’s the size of California, Oregon and Washington put together and a little extra. To imagine an area of that size, with only 3% of the old growth forest left, it’s inconceivable. What we wanted to do was to tell the story about the people that were there, and I did want to paint the whole picture when I was there, and that is because of the work that I’ve done with First Nations for 40 years. I’m really well aware of the depth of the cultural connections to forests/wildlife,  but we also have to remember there have been a lot of social issues and alcoholism and residential schools as we know them. First Nations have been working on economic development a lot of the time. I wanted to be fair to groups like the Huu-ay-aht who have been there a long time. It’s not enough just to say “Logging has to stop.” There are ways in which we can recognize traditional territories of First Nations and where they’re able to log and they do so in a good manner as they’re doing with the Huu-ay-aht and I wanted to show that people need jobs. We can’t just as non-native people after 140 years of logging just suddenly say “Sorry we used up all the wood and now there’s nothing left for you guys and don’t even try” all the while telling not to be on social assistance. I wanted to be fair and I wanted to acknowledge that in the film. In addition to battle for the trees with forest defenders, we also had to look at aboriginal people and their rights to the land.

Peter also went into detail about the Amazon and how it was effected, which got brought up later. Peter Coyote then brought up an interesting kind of award called The Goldman Award, a $250,000 global award for extreme bravery in saving the environment. One winner who was a Tamil Tiger told a story about a goose with two necks (one long and one short) where the moral was without economic justice there can be no environmental justice. A point that was also proven in this documentary. He also brought up how some Native American loggers provide a nice bed of leaves and branches for trees when they’re cut down, compared to big corporations who just mow down everything in sight.


HNMAG: So you tried to show both sides of the stories. Question for you both: Which side do you feel is more compelling?

Peter Von Puttkamer: I’ll just say the point of the film is we’re showing that forests are being destroyed all over the Earth and in this case we kind of focused on Fairy Creek and the Amazon and similar things are happening. They’re not only running out of wood, they’re destroying these biodiverse ecosystems. Let’s not lose sight of that. Places like the Amazon that were absorbing carbon and are no longer a carbon-sink, they’re actually contributing to greenhouse gases because all the wood that’s been cut and the fires have been burning, so there’s real consequences for climate change in North and South America. So having said that, we understand we need wood products, nobody in that protest was saying we need anti-logging on that trail, they’re saying we have to protect the old growth, and have sustainability of complex ecosystems. We CAN’T just cut it all down. That’s the goal of the film. Within that, we’re saying there’s aboriginal people and some of them would like to log to sustain their economy and society to provide jobs so we just have to acknowledge that.

Peter Coyote: I’d like to add something, concur completely with what Peter said. The idea of people and wilderness being exclusive is kind of a yuppie notion that we should get all the people out and we should explore. People have always lived in and exploited nature. The places where they buried the fire ash in the Amazon is 5 times as productive. If you go up in the woodland forest of America, they selectively bred and protected trees and the burden of nut bearing trees was much higher in nature. The question is not which story is the most compelling, there is NO problem in selectively cutting down trees and hauling them out with small vehicles or horses, and not destroying the landscape and leaving the soils available to be washed into the river and wipe out the salmon habitat. The question is we all have a common heritage and a common interest in a healthy planet and that’s not mutually exclusive with people earning a living. But are you going to earn a living to have an 8000 square foot house, jet mobiles, a sailboat, an SUV, and a 500 horse-power car? Or are you going to have a decent somewhat smaller life that you could sustain for your children and grandchildren?


HNMAG: So you really went elsewhere with that.

Peter Coyote: I think he did a fantastic job, I’ve seen dozens of these, believe me. Dozens! This is head and shoulders above most.


HNMAG: And Mr. Puttkamer, why did you go beyond Fairy Creek and talk about Amazonian and Asian jungles as well?

Peter Von Puttkamer: Well, I’ll credit David Casselman, the Founder/CEO of Ecoflix. What he didn’t want for this to be was a film just about protests. While we understand the urgency of what’s going on in BC, and is a great flashpoint to make the point about forests, this issue is happening everywhere so he said this needs to be broader and a global issue so I looked to the Amazon and I’ve been there filming a dozen different times, different productions with lost explorer tales and lost cities and all kinds of adventures I’ve been up to. Even filming very rare monkeys for BBC and Animal Planet. I’m well aware of what it’s like down there, and a friend of mine Filmmaker Todd Southgate is my Director of Photography and he lives in Brazil so he’s in the Amazon all the time. It’s through Todd that I  really became aware of Amazon Watch projects and I’ve worked with him before. I wanted to talk about the connection between Amazon jungle and America and the climate change, the fires that have been here, the weather changes that are here, and how we’re connected through the atmosphere. It’s really valid to talk about those things. In terms of Asia, there’s really the issue of forests, palm oil plantations, displacing wildlife, and that’s another big part of the story.

Peter Coyote: Cutting down rainforest to make palm oil for human beings for skin lotion. Peter had a fact in the film that’s a great metaphor. It’s based on modern scientific discoveries that all trees certainly in the given region by invisible mycelium roots under the ground. They can actually communicate to each other by chemistry. If one tree is being attacked, it will send out signals to all the other trees to release toxins into their leaves to protect them. It’s quite astounding, it’s literal communication from things we call plants. But if you look at it from a tree’s POV, we are Putin. We are treating the planet as a sump for offloading our chemicals and detritus and the shit we don’t wanna pay for, or from extracting something. Like water, minerals, precious metals for cellphones. I just can’t believe a culture that can send people to the moon and back, or send a little car to Mars to fool around, couldn’t come up with some kind of substitute for cutting down cedar to make chopsticks out of. 


As you may have gathered, Peter Coyote had lots to say. Especially about how so many computer users don’t know how big a carbon footprint their computer is making, about the wars and issues in Africa, or trees getting cut down. Of course, he says these things to incur obligation, and Peter continued on by saying those are human made problems, and as members of the human species, we are responsible for what the corporations we support do. Not to see that is a willful ignorance. 


HNMAG: Was there any travel involved with filming the other locations?

Peter Von Puttkamer: This film was not a big budget film. (laughs) EcoFlix is a non-profit that’s just starting out, so there’s limited resources. Our budget that we had really went into the adventure of being at Fairy Creek and meeting the people there and experiencing that. As far as Amazon footage goes, I have a large library of films that I’ve shot down there, Greenpeace helped out with some footage, Amazon Watch helped out with some footage. The key was to get Amazon Watch’s Executive Director Leila Salazar Lopez and she’s a terrific spokesperson for the work that they do. It’s all valid and this is all recent stuff, so things that are actually going on now.


HNMAG: Was there anything else from your past experience that you tried to work into The Last Stand?

Peter Von Puttkamer: There’s a lifetime of encounters with animals and things that I’ve witnessed in terms of forest depletion and lack of wildlife in places that we go because oil companies like in Ecuador where Amazon Watch has done a lot. We were there with Wade Davis who was on another show I did which was a story on a hunt for hallucinogens for the History Channel in 2007.   We had noticed how there was very little wildlife here in Ecuador- Texico apparently saturated the whole area with oil spills and stuff oozing out of the ground. In terms of the Pacific Northwest, I was involved in a film in the 90’s with the Huu-ay-aht First Nations and it was called Heart of the People. It was about trying to bring back the Sarita river and their salmon run, after logging destroyed that valley. I brought all the sensibility and put it in the film.

That particular film talked a lot about the loss of the fish and the sheer volume of salmon then- so much so that young people were warned about heading out in small canoes on the river, in case a seal stampeded the millions of fish!  Heart of the People even got nominated for a Gemini Award in Canada, and the federal and provincial government then helped put money into that river to try and restore it. 


HNMAG: I heard it was pretty intense to make the documentary. What was the most dangerous part to get done?

Peter Von Puttkamer: It wasn’t too dangerous, but there were a few moments where we tried to get down to key vantage points.  The people up there were used to scrambling over rocks and cliffs (and we weren’t) and a few times the RCMP had blocked all the access roads to try and prevent people from protesting. So, at one point we were trying to get down to one of their camps, and they said, “Just go up to the trail head and you’ll see it. Go down and there’s a part that’s a little tricky with a rope on a cliff but you guys should be okay” and here we are going down, I’ve got a backpack with 25-30 pounds in it and the way down is just a steep trail like a chute in the woods, it was all pine needles and loose gravel. It was a scramble, and then sure enough you get to a cliff where there’s a knotted rope and then you’re hanging off this thing. There were a few moments that were daunting, I would say.


HNMAG: With recording protests, how did you manage to avoid getting arrested or captured by police?

Peter Von Puttkamer: It was all about timing, budget, and time of year that we were there. When we were there, it was just like a day or two before a big RCMP raid came in.  Fortunately, a lot of the key people that were there and we filmed them. Then, others were able to provide us with the crucial confrontation footage that reveals some truly scary moments, unusually physical arrests and some people were getting their cameras confiscated.  I heard that some people brought  really bad old cameras from the 90s because I knew the police would take them. I think at one point they were handing out $50-60 go pros to protestors to be able to film cheaply as to what was going on. There was a lot filmed and had to be negotiated, everyone up there didn’t use their real names, because they don’t want to be identified. It was very underground when we were up there, I would say. We came in with the Rainforest Flying Squad Organizing Group, and a bunch of other people who were able to vouch for us and get in because a lot of deceptions and things had been happening there with the police so it was all going in with the right people and people understanding that we were there to help.


HNMAG: What’s the most important message you feel people will take away?

Peter Coyote: None of us have ever for one moment lived separately from oxygen, from sunlight, from water, from the microbes in the soil that grow our food. From the pollinating insects, from the birds that control pests, it’s sort of an illusion that we live separate lives because in reality we’re all like ticks on the body of a great big dog. If we don’t offer compassion to each other like a rich man who has something we want, we’re done for. 


HNMAG: Do you think the issue may be resolved if more people plant more trees?

Peter Von Puttkamer: That’s a very interesting question. A lot of people are doing that, and it’s really great that they are. One of the things that we introduced was the section of Living Carbon in San Francisco, run by Maddie Hall (selected for Forbes Magzine’s top 30 new entrepreneurs under 30).  We wanted something really cutting edge in that show. Science can help, it’s not all like factories or nuclear threats or whatever. What Living Carbon’s doing is they’re creating trees in a laboratory and modifying them. It’s not like GMO’s, but new types that would be on tree farms (and non-reproducing)  that are faster growing trees that’ll hold more carbon. The problem with the planting of the trees now is that you need a LOT of them. It’s been estimatd, you’d  need to fill an area the size of India to make an impact on the planet in terms of holding the carbon. What they’re (Living Carbon) genuinely doing is creating more efficient trees to hold carbon and stop climate change.

Like I said, it was quite a lively conversation, and we could’ve gone on for hours, these two probably could’ve gone on for longer as it was a great opportunity for them to reconnect and especially good for me to see them interact like plants in the forest. If only I could afford to extend the Zoom meeting. There’s plenty more environmental topics these two are going to cover and there’s sure to be more to talk about. But in the meantime, check out Ecoflix because Peter thinks it explains environmental issues in a way that anyone can understand. It’s a great site created by former attorney David Casselman who even created an elephant sanctuary in Cambodia. Give it some support so we may bring up more issues and find more solutions to saving our planet. I’m already doing so by not printing this magazine on paper. We might just see some more of Peter Von Puttkamer’s docs go up there in the near future. 

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