Interview with the Producer: Dave Steinke [read Dunsky interview]
Jessica Brownell: What was your initial interest in this piece?
Dave Steinke: Well I guess my initial interest is in the agency. I’ve worked for the US Forest Service for 25 years now. My interest in this particular project started probably 10 to 15 years ago. Working for the agency for so long, I always thought we needed a history piece as an orientation piece, especially for new employees and people who come over from different agencies and don’t know a lot about the agency. We were always trying to include this in our orientation sessions and new employee meetings. All the video tapes we created always had this flavor of the history, of the US Forest Service and what it meant and why it was different from the Park Service and different from the Bureau of Land Management and different from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and it was always a task for us to include that in all of our communication messages. And so it was this need, I think, that has been there for a long, long time. And then I met [co-producer] Steve Dunsky and [assistant producer and editor] Ann Dunsky, and I think we’ve discussed it for years and years, and finally it came to fruition when this new program called New Century of Service, which was to honor the next 100 years of the agency, came about. We thought that a history film would be the ticket.
JB: What is the significance of New Century of Service and also of
the centennial of the Forest Service that this film marks?
DS: I think New Century of Service is aptly named in my mind, in that it really is going to be the beginning of another 100 years of service to the American public. It’s to celebrate this incredible idea of public lands and preserving large chunks of land in the US. Not just preserving it to look at it and to keep it--the National Park Service does a great job with that mission--but to use these lands, and to have these working lands in multiple use. I think that’s really the key to the New Century of Service. And I love that moniker of “New Century” and I think that it says, yes, we will honor the past and yes, it’s good to look back and see what we can take from the last 100 years, but I think New Century looks forward, and I think that’s where we need to look: to the next 100 years, and the changing demands and the conflicts. So many of them are the same, so many of them are different, and I think that’s the key to our film, “The Greatest Good,” is what is the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run. I think New Century of Service grabs that concept, looks forward and tries to challenge us as land managers and challenge the American people to do the best thing with this tremendous gift of 191 million acres and make it last for a long, long time with my kids and my kids’ kids in mind.
JB: What about people who aren’t part of the agency? Why should
the public pay attention?
DS: I think that people outside of the agency and outside of federal government should know about this because I believe, and most people who understand the concept of the US Forest Sevice understand what a gift this was from Teddy Roosevelt and [first Forest Service Chief] Gifford Pinchot and those people 100 years ago who could look forward and see and sense the needs of the American people for this tremendous resource called public lands, and how somebody that long ago could look this far out into the future and know that we need these 191 million acres of Forest Sevice land to recreate and to mine and to graze and to do all the things that the Forest Service lands are. I always think of my mom as the general public and I always ask Mom what she knows about the National Park Service and the Forest Service and the differences, and if she doesn’t get it, then I know that my next-door neighbors and my aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews don’t get it either, so I always give it the Doris test. If Doris doesn’t know something about the Forest Service, then it needs more explaining. I think we hadn’t passed the Doris test with the history of the Forest Service, so I think that it’s important that people know what a tremendous resource we have out there and how it came about and why we should honor the memory of those people who were so thoughtful about us 100 years ago.
JB: What major theme are you trying to communicate to your audience?
DS: I think that one of the overwriting themes that people will get from this film is that things are very much the same as they were 100 years ago. We do a lot of the same things on the land and we have a lot of the same issues and conflicts. It’s a lot about a working democracy—maybe that’s the nugget that people can take from this film by looking back 100 years, is that a working democracy is loud and noisy and boisterous and fierce and it’s a battle all the time, and if it’s not, something’s wrong. If people aren’t passionate about this public land that is so special, then maybe something’s wrong, maybe someone is getting more than their share. It just seems that that’s where this agency should be set, in the middle of this battle, in the middle of this vital democracy and that’s the role that has been carved out by the American people and Congress and people for this agency. It’s a tough place to be and I think that’s part of this story too, are these wonderful people who have put themselves in the middle of this democratic process to try to balance the needs of people who want to take all of the resources and those who want to lock up all of the resources and we’re placed firmly in the middle to be that mediator between the two, to keep the democracy vital and energetic, to preserve this idea of public lands. And I hope that people understand that, and it’s key to understand where we came from, where we’ve been, and then more importantly, to look forward: what does that next 100 years hold? And what can we learn from the past that we can apply to the present, and keep this vital debate of democracy and public lands together.
JB: Is the film biased in support of the Forest Service?
DS: I think we’ve got a pretty good balance in this film. Both [co-producer] Steve and I are Forest Service employees, and Ann, our editor, is also a Forest Service employee, and I think we’ve probably bent over backwards to make it as unbiased and middle-of-the-road as possible. We’ve gone to many of our harshest critics and asked them to comment and they have a voice in this film. We’ve gone to a lot of people who really like the Forest Service and they’ve got a voice in this film. But I think we’ve tried to take an objective look at the history of the Forest Service from a variety of voices. I think we’ve interviewed over 60 people about this agency, and I think we’ve had a balanced look at this. I guess only the people who look at this will be able to see if it’s balanced or not.
JB: Are you trying to tell people to go see it?
DS: That’s right. Don’t just judge it just because the Forest Service made the film. Go look at it, touch it, feel it, sense it, watch it a couple of different times, and then I’d love to chat with people and say, hey, if it’s not balanced, help me make it more balanced.
JB: What does the title “The Greatest Good?” mean to you
and what do you think it should mean to your audience?
DS: I love the title of “The Greatest Good” and we battled long and hard about the title for the film. There is a book by Char Miller and Rebecca Staebler called The Greatest Good. It’s a great quote from Pinchot, and it’s often seen in Forest Service offices, and it may be a little overused, but we really talked about this, Steve and Ann and I, and it really just seems to summarize so much of what the agency is and does and believes. I love it that it was said almost 100 years ago: “The greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.” We asked all of the people that we interviewed, “What does that mean?” and we got a whole rainbow of ideas about what it means and whether it’s still relevant. In my heart, I believe that it was a great way to start an agency. It’s a great way to look forward and I believe that it’s still relevant today for this agency, that we should make decisions for all of the American public for the best for them and have the future in mind. So I love it, I love it for the title of the movie and I think it’s compelling and I hope that people think so, too. When we struck on that phrase right at the beginning, on September 12, 2001, right after the tragedy, we were up in [Pinchot’s former home and contemporary national landmark] Grey Towers, not able to fly home, and here we were with all of the historians that we had called together to talk about the project. And we gnashed and we fought about the title and what should it be, and here was Char Miller, the author of the book The Greatest Good, and we wanted to steal the name from him. In everything that Pinchot talks about, we hear him and we see him say this, and maybe it’s overused but no, no, it’s perfect. And it’s stuck for almost five years now, that title has stuck, and I still love it. I can’t say it enough.
JB: Is there anything else you would like to communicate about this
DS: Yes, it’s a really ambitious project, and if you look at it at face value, a two-hour documentary about the history of the Forest Service, it might look tough to swallow, but open the book, put on the film, fire up the DVD, get a bag of popcorn, relax and enjoy. It’s a compelling film. We’ve got great stories, we’ve got wonderful people who comment about this agency, who used to work for this agency, who are critics of this agency, and when you mix it all up, and edit it as well as Ann Dunsky has done, I think that it’s going to feel like 50 or 60 minutes when you sit down to watch this entire film. It’s a wonderful piece of history that’s never been done before, never been tried before, and I think that it’s an important story about an important agency, and I think that people will love this film.