Personnel Profile: Alden Olmstead

Documentary filmmaker Alden Olmstead is on a campaign to gather money to keep state parks open in honor of his father, John Olmstead, who died in March.

Tell us about your dad and the project he inspired.
[I’m] the son of John Olmstead, who founded or saved three of the parks that are on the list for closure. That would be Jug Handle, a state reserve near Mendocino, and the South Yuba River State Park, and Bridgeport Covered Bride. Within those is the Independence Trail, which is the first wheelchair-accessible nature trail.

My dad grew up in L.A. when it was a lot less developed in the 40s. He grew up running around the hills. Up in Mammoth Lakes, as a six- or seven-year-old, he was just turned loose and he was hooked. When he went to college at Pomona he continued studying near the San Gabriel Mountains and became interested in botany and because of his great aunt, who is related to the Bechtel Family, she got him a job as the first botanist at San Francisco’s State Park.

He was reading in her library one day and found that he was born 100 years after John Muir – 1838 and 1938. It struck a chord with him. He went on a Muir-like odyssey of trying to keep California wild. His biggest dream has always been a trail across California bordering Highway 20, from Mendocino to Tahoe. That’s why all the land that he preserved has been around Highway 20, starting at Mendocino.

I grew up without my dad, because he left when I was a little kid. We heard about him and kind of knew what he was doing, but he was always kind of a Gandalf-like figure, with the beard and the walking stick, who would come in at odd times of my life and bring strange gifts. Like ‘here’s a sand dollar for your birthday’ or ‘one acre of land has been saved in your name.’ As a seven-year-old kid, I didn’t know what to do with that. My brother and I grew up with that, kind of on our own, even though my mom was great. After college and odd jobs I became interested in photography and that led to an interest in film.

About eight months ago I got the call that my dad had six months to live. I knew that he deserved a film about his life, I just didn’t know when and I thought it would happen at a later time when I was more prepared. I just thought, well, now’s the time. I was living in Hollywood when I got the phone call and I grabbed a bunch of cameras and batteries and clothes. I became his caregiver in Nevada City. The film is called “My Father, Who Art in Nature” and right now it’s awaiting consideration at the Mill Valley Film Festival and a couple others.
He passed away on March 8, but five days earlier, he did get to see the film. That was pretty cool to watch it with him. He was pretty weak, he was in-and-out of it, but he appreciated parts of it and he popped up at certain parts when I didn’t get the facts straight and he got excited. It was cool. It’s kind of a heavy story but it has a good ending of forgiveness and fatherhood.

You don’t sound so bitter about your dad not always being there for you.
He started to get a little concerned when I was starting to make the movie because I told him the list of people I wanted to interview. These are ex-wives and people who haven’t spoken to him and people who lost money with him in these crazy schemes in saving land for the state. I told him, “Dad, don’t worry. If what you did wasn’t at least somewhat noble, than I wouldn’t have made a film about it and we wouldn’t have reconnected.” But I respected what he did, even though I still wish that I would have had a dad. Rather than waste time worrying about it, I had to just figure that I was gonna forgive him. He is who he is. He’s a crazy visionary.

He created the first wheelchair-accessible nature trail?
Jug Handle has wheelchair accessibility to it, not all of it. It was an inspiration to people. Before Christopher Reeve died, it spread to a new wheelchair-accessible trail at the base of Yosemite Falls. I visited that with Dad in 2004. That was a big source of pride for him, even though his name is not listed anywhere. Recently, they did approve a grant to build an Olmstead Interpretative Kiosk on Highway 20, near the lower part of the South Yuba. That’s gonna tell about what my dad did.

The parks, because of the budget obviously, they’re trying to cut all the money they can. I appreciate the theory, but I think that state parks are the wrong place to take money from. We’re talking only about $11 million this year, $22 million each year thereafter. They want to close 70 state parks. I don’t know if this will work, but I started a simple campaign of everyone giving a dollar. There’s 38 million Californians, so even if half of them gave, that would be enough. This has kind of turned into a little bit of a viral thing. There’s twenty buckets now around the state, Fox & Goose is gonna get one today. On Facebook and stuff, people can know where the buckets are. As they get used to seeing my dad’s face, they can realize that this is serious. I don’t know if it will save the parks 100 percent, but it will at least look differently than outright closure.

At the Save the Parks rally here today, I started talking to people about how we could save money. I found out that a lot of these parks already are running way under their budgets. The state says it cost $35,000 a year to run this one park, Anderson Marsh Park in Clearlake. I just heard they run it for $6,000 a year. Not a month, a year. They have no rangers. They have a guy who opens the gate in the morning, closes it at night, empties out the bathroom. They’re already running the park on a volunteer basis. Where is the rest of the money going that the state says is going to parks?

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