Parks and Recreation: 'California Forever' Documents the Debate over Natural Treasures

Two years before California state park funding came under the microscope in both voting booths and in the media, filmmakers David Vassar and Sally Kaplan sat across from each other at their kitchen table, mouths agape at a newspaper article they were reading that called the recent
environmental issues "a reasonable debate."

 "In 2008, there were two really significant controversies brewing in state parks," says Vassar, who directed the two-part documentary California Forever, which airs this month and next on PBS stations. "One was the Orange County toll road they were trying to put through San Onofre State Park, and the second was San Diego Gas and Electric trying to get right of way for transmission lines from the solar and wind power farms in the Mojave Desert through Anza-Borrego State Park."


Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. (c) 2011 Backcountry PicturesInc.


As Kaplan, who produced the film and runs Backcountry Pictures with her husband, Vassar, explains, these parks were "set aside for the people, for us, and for future generations. Nothing could keep them from being state parks..." Yet there they were, a part of this "conversation" about doing away with that right either in part or in entirety in the future.

Kaplan and Vassar felt they needed to change the conversation, and in 2009 they began production on California Forever, which is a project of IDA's Fiscal Sponsorship Program. "Although I didn't spend my whole life making conservation and environmental films, I feel very strongly about the importance of conservation on the human psyche and the social fabric that holds us together," says Vassar, who was a park ranger in Yosemite National Park at the age of 20. "Historical, cultural sites are what define us as a people."

At the end of Episode Two, entitled "Parks for the Future," American historian Kevin Starr says, "If we lose our state parks it would be the equivalent of losing all the great paintings of California...all the great poems that were written about California, all the great novels, all the great films, all the great architectural monuments. More importantly we lose our usable
past, the past that defines the present and the future. We'll become a people adrift. A people not knowing who they were, where they came from, what mistakes they made and what things they did right. We lose the essential premise of stewardship for our culture if we lose the state parks."

Since there are 278 state parks in California, Kaplan focused on pinpointing a handful of challenges and found parks where they could have a sampling of those issues.  "We
narrowed it down to parks where we could tell six separate stories," she explains. "For example, the Ocotillo Wells SVRA [State Vehicular Recreation Area] story was an easy place to tell that particular conflict. Because Ocotillo Wells shares a common border with Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, it's a place where the conversation is split down the middle between the naturists
and the off-roaders."

Although the second episode, where this and the other conflict stories are told, attempts a fair voice for both parties, Kaplan admits that audience members have come away from it laughing--not ha-ha laughing, but a sad laugh at the fact that these noisy, destructive off-road vehicle riders claim that driving around Anza-Borrego and tearing up the land, leaving only dirt in their path, is their chance to reconnect with nature, just like the hikers and campers do.



Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area in San Diego County. (c) 2011 Backcountry Pictures Inc.

As Scott Hillier of the San Diego Off-Road Coalition says in Episode Two, "If you don't give them a place to ride, they're going to find a place to ride. They're going break the rules because they bought and spent a lot of money to go play. You need to give them a place to ride or they're going be coming to a neighborhood close to you."

Although Vassar believes there is a better compromise out there--since putting a fence around an area for off-roading is essentially putting a death warrant on its ecosystem-- it's better than the alternative of having them everywhere.

 "Whether we agree or not with an individual's desire to use a space in a particular way, there are competing ways that visitors want to use parks," Kaplan adds. "That has to be
OK and there has to be a way for both users to get out there, regardless of our opinion."

The Ocotillo Wells sequence is representative of bigger arguments that Backcountry Pictures is trying to bring to the forefront with California Forever: The more people there are, the more they're going to go to parks, the more conflicts there will be between user groups--the mountain bikers versus the equestrians, the kite surfers versus the elephant seals.


Elephant seals at Hearst San Simeon State Park. (c) 2012 Backcountry Pictures Inc.


 "As open space disappears and population increases, these dialogues are going to be taking place in a lot more arenas," Vassar notes. "The whole point of episode two was
to pick a handful of stories that were emblematic of these kinds of issues that will become universal very soon."

To tell these stories, Vassar employed his friend and colleague for over 35 years, director of photography Chris Tufty. Tufty has been Backcountry Pictures' go-to DP since they began in 2001.

Their editor, Christian White, whom Kaplan calls "a rare combination of tech wizard and superb creativity," pushed for the RED One. In 2009, during RED's nascent stages, that was pretty novel. Vassar believes he was pushing for it mostly because of the quality of the image (they were shooting in 4K), the density of the master and the ease of the post-production flow where they
wouldn't have to develop and transfer to 2K for the post pathway.

 "I went in kicking and screaming," says Vassar. "Usually our MO is 35mm. We spend a lot of money going to these exotic places, so we try to bring the fattest master back that
we can. But I am thrilled with [the RED One footage] we got."

The first episode begins in 1864 and ends in the present, focusing on the big milestones in California state parks. It is scripted, planned out, with giant re-creations, big dolly moves and huge interiors. The second episode is, as described above, six short films that could stand on their own.
It is a pure verité, camera-on-your-shoulder, fly-on-the-wall style of filmmaking.

 "David [Vassar], myself and Chris [Tufty] have created a truly collaborative style of creating
these stories that take place outdoors," says Kaplan. "Christian [White] and the rest of our team, they're well known in their own right, but choose to come work with us when they have the time. We appreciate their expertise and collaboration immensely.

 "In all our films," continues Kaplan, "we try to highlight landscape as a part of the story. We don't just make animals and people the star of the film. Landscape is a character in our programs. That goes to the heart of how we shoot and edit and why we work with the people we do."

Backcountry Pictures is in development on an extension for a national series about state parks.


David Vassar and Sally Kaplan, producers, California Forever. Photo: Backcountry Pictures, Inc. (c) 2008



Valentina I. Valentini is a freelance journalist and producer based in Los Angeles. She contributes to ICG Magazine, British Cinematographer,, HDVideoPro and more.