AMERICA grew up on sagebrush and sawdust. ``If there was one thing that shaped our character and culture, one single factor you could point to, it would be wild country,'' argues historian Roderick Nash in a new documentary film called ``The Wilderness Idea: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and the First Great Battle for Wilderness'' (PBS, Jan. 9, 9-10 p.m., check local listings).
The program, third in ``The American Experience'' series, explores the shift in American thought away from frontier destruction to environmental protection. It culminates in the decade-long debate ending in 1913 to turn the Hetch Hetchy valley in Yosemite National Park into a reservoir for San Francisco. By tracing the lives of two conservationists - John Muir and Gifford Pinchot - the film offers a historical perspective on a present-day controversy: Should conservation efforts provide for multiple use of land resources, or should nature be left completely untouched?
``Pinchot was a multiple-use man,'' says Mr. Nash in the film. ``He believed you could have forestry, grazing, and watershed protection and wilderness values all in the same place. Muir didn't agree.''
``The film is meant to give you some historical basis for understanding what the present-day issues are,'' says co-producer Lawrence Hott in an interview at his western Massachusetts home. Mr. Hott and Diane Garey, his wife, are award-winning producers/directors and owners of Florentine Films. ``What we have going on today goes way back. It's bound up in American history, and it's peculiarly American,'' Hott adds.
Hott and Garey deftly blend still and motion photography of Muir, Pinchot, and their common friend, President Teddy Roosevelt, with present-day images of American wilderness and interviews with environmental historians. While they don't attempt to provide answers, they pose philosophical questions regarding man and his role in nature. ``Are we to subordinate everything to human purposes?'' asks Muir biographer Stephen Fox in the film.
The 1890 census brought news that there was no longer a discernible frontier in the continental United States. John Muir and Gifford Pinchot began working on the relationship between man and nature, ultimately defining the meaning of land conservation as preservation and utilization.
Muir was of Scottish descent. His family moved to Wisconsin when he was 11, and his father raised him on back-breaking labor and suffocating Calvinism. ``There are incredible stories from Muir's childhood that we had to let go of,'' co-producer Garey tells the Monitor, describing the difficulty in developing the story of the two men. ``Muir's father forces him to dig a well, cutting through bedrock to do it. And it's almost a metaphor for the way he proceeded through life, fighting through granite to get to his goal.''
Muir went to the wilderness initially to escape his father's wrath and the drudgery of commercial civilization. But he found a higher purpose: ``I want ... to find the law that governs the relationship between human beings and nature.'' Muir eventually founded the Sierra Club.
Pinchot, in contrast, was born of the American elite mixed with European aristocracy. He became a forester by his father's choosing, and was educated at Yale University and in Europe to manage land. He not only was the first American-born professional forester, but also first chief of the National Forest Service under Roosevelt's administration. After seeing widespread deforestation in Europe, Pinchot came to the conclusion that unmanaged land is vulnerable to unbridled, wasteful exploitation.
FROM their earliest disputes over sheep grazing, Muir and Pinchot were divided on how and why to set land aside. Muir felt that conservation meant preservation, arguing that nature does not need a human reason to exist, but that it has a usefulness unto itself. Pinchot advocated conservation for the sake of preserving land intact and worked to establish government forest regulation for sustaining resources.
``Pinchot was a multiple-use man. He believed you could have forestry, grazing, and watershed protection and wilderness values all in the same place,'' says Mr. Nash in the film. ``Muir didn't agree. He thought if you had those other economic uses, wilderness went out the window. And that was really the crux of the difference between the men.''
That difference came to a loggerhead when San Francisco Mayor James Phelan proposed damming the Hetch Hetchy valley in Yosemite National Park in order to secure a more reliable water supply for his city. At issue was more than one mountain valley, but also the definition and purpose of the land set aside in the national parks.
What is wilderness to Americans - what purpose does it have in human existence and what significance does humanity play in it?
``This film is a comprehensive scale for measuring our opinions on environmental issues today,'' says Muir expert Lee Stetson, who saw the documentary at its San Francisco premier recently. The documentary's release coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.Mr. Stetson gives a lecture show on John Muir called ``Conversations With a Tramp'' in Yosemite valley. ``Everybody better decide how they stand on the issues - whether they're Muirs or Pinchots - and take action now,'' Mr. Stetson says.
Since its world premier last September in Washington D.C., ``The Wilderness Idea'' has won a Gold Plaque from the Chicago Film Festival and a CINE Golden Eagle award. endchoHott and Garey successfully control the narration, original score, archival footage, and wildlife cinematography in a well-choreographed film. endcho
Though a complicated debate is the heart of its subject, the filmmakers manage to tell a story graced with touches of humor. One shortfall, however, is an overemphasis on Muir's and Pinchot's strained friendship.
``These are two guys, each meeting a different kind of public,'' says John Wanamaker, former Principia College professor and specialist on Muir and Pinchot. ``They weren't working cross-purposes, just different constituencies.''