June 15, 2004

Forest Service explores 100 years of action
with feature-length centennial documentary

By Jessica Brownell

Commemorating a century of conflict and growth, a century of visionaries and politicians, the Forest Service will kick off its centennial year with the Jan. 4 premiere of "The Greatest Good.”

Not merely a historical survey, this high definition documentary, produced by the Forest Service’s own Steve Dunsky and Dave Steinke, provides a close examination of the last 100 years of Forest Service initiative in the context of public and private interests.

The film's title comes from a utilitarian maxim originated by philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, then popularized by first Forest Chief Gifford Pinchot. In 1905, Pinchot urged for a reconciliation of "conflicting interests" through analysis of "the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run." One hundred years later, Forest Service employees are still grappling to achieve this complex goal.

According to Dunsky, "The management of public lands in a democratic society is inherently filled with controversy, so we decided that we were not going to make a film that was a glorious rendition of a flawless past, that we were going to talk about some of the mistakes that have been made, talk about some of the controversies and talk about what lessons we have learned from 100 years of federal forest management.”

Indeed, the film delves into an array of sensitive topics, such as the delicate balance between preservation and conservation (and the consequent confusion of the National Park Service and Forest Service in the public eye). Other topics include the conflict between the need to conserve and the desire for public use, historical paternalism and exclusion of women in the agency as well as the inherent dangers and controversies of wildland firefighting.

"I think the one thing that we would like to convey" he said, "is that public lands in America are something worth having...If you don't have this debate, sometimes a very loud debate, then you have the King's Forest (of Old England)...The resources belong to one person and he or she decides who gets to use them. In this country, those decisions are made on a daily basis at every level of society."

The film's documentary writer Steve Most said, "There has been a lot of polarization in our society. Sometimes the Forest Service has seemed like a hero and sometimes it's seemed like the bad guy. But it has made a lasting contribution."

"The Greatest Good" examines the history of this contribution and also documents a model of democracy in action. Accordingly, the story is told through the eyes of a democracy's key player: the everyday person. As Steinke said, "It often takes kings and queens to make change, but these changes [of the Forest Service] have been made by soil scientists and rancher's kids...people from all walks of life. This is really a story of ordinary people making extraordinary changes in the land."

With a history full of "marvelous characters," Dunsky said "what we try to do is tell the story through their stories. And we feel that people will be interested not only in the events of history but also in some aspects of these characters' personal lives and their growth and development."

The film attempts to make household names of ecological pioneers like Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, Arthur Carhart and Gifford Pinchot. Characters like Pinchot, driven by what Steinke coined "land passion," guide the story’s structure. The film looks first at pre-WWII land management policy under Pinchot, and then analyzes the conflicts of the post-war era, spurred by the environmental movement of the 1960s.

In both sections, the story of the Forest Service is rich in visual imagery. “One of the things that is very appealing about this subject,” Dunsky said, “is that it’s something we can literally document throughout our history… There are tremendous visual resources.”

With a bank of about 100,000 images, including silent films and Forest Service PSAs, cartoons, paintings, black and white photos, news reels, propaganda materials, television spots, posters, and modern graphics, the filmmakers estimate their shooting ratio to have been around 100:1. According to associate producer Ann Dunsky, the issue became whether to “let the images drive the story or the story drive the images.” Ultimately, the Greatest Good turned out to be a blend of accurate, cohesive filmmaking with lighthearted but salient pop culture, from Smokey Bear to what Steinke called "the romanticized idea of taming the west."

Besides being an educational documentary of Forest Service milestones, the project is a milestone for the agency in itself. Ms. Dunsky noted that in gathering such images and footage for the documentary, the filmmakers have archived an incredible bank of historical images and documented interviews with key contemporary figures that will now be more accessible to future generations.

One of the more complicated issues the film wrestles with, both structurally and thematically, is where the story ends and what the future holds for the Forest Service. “The end of the story is the difficult part,” Ms. Dunsky said, “because where do you stop? At what point can we look back with enough judgment and enough time and be able to make some sense of it?”

Even the question of the film’s namesake remains unsolved. But after three years working on this project, Dunsky seems to have some closure that he hopes to impart to his audience with the documentary.

"Over the course of 100 years, we’ve wrestled with this question of what is the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run. The good news is that in the long run, we still have these lands and we still have the opportunity to wrestle with these issues. The irresolution inherent within is in fact the strength of Pinchot’s statement: it is such a fundamental concept that it can be applied over many years to many different circumstances.”

Public distribution through live screenings around the country (as well as in some international locations) and possible broadcast opportunities will follow the film’s Jan. 4 premiere at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Baird Auditorium. Producers are also pursuing the possibility of screening the film in conjunction with question and answer sessions, keynote speakers and one-person plays.