"Robert Redford's films are not only his story, but also America's story," Herbert said at the gala. "They are Utah's story, and they are our story."
Herbert said it was an especially good time to honor Redford, both because ski season is about to start, but also because his latest movie, the survival drama "All Is Lost," is earning Redford the best reviews of his career and talk of another Oscar nomination.
Herbert — who declared "Robert Redford Day" in the state — said that while the world knows Robert Redford for his films, Sundance, and his environmental causes, "In Utah, we know him as a neighbor up the street. He's one of us. … I do believe he feels more at home here than he does in Hollywood."
Redford returned the compliment to Herbert.
"It takes a governor with a lot of courage to honor a man who's been burned in effigy, twice," Redford joked, referring to responses to some of the actor's environmental campaigning in the '70s.
Redford talked about how he first discovered Utah while driving between Colorado and California.
"I saw this citadel of rock that seemed to be embracing the land below it," he said, referring to Mount Timpanogos and the land that became Sundance. "I thought — and it's an oft-used phrase — this is the place."
Redford noted that he and some of the elected officials in the audience, many of them on the opposite end of the political spectrum from him, share common ground.
"Whatever differences may exist, we can all come together and agree on one thing, and that's our love of this state and our country and the people," Redford said.
The evening began with a Native American dance and invocation. Entertainment was provided by Tony-winning actress Audra McDonald, who sang five songs including a solid cover of "The Way We Were," from the 1974 movie that starred Redford and Barbra Streisand.
A video presentation — with Redford and others talking about the beginnings of Sundance as a resort, a catalog shop, and an arts institution — highlighted the cultural and economic benefits Redford's efforts have given the state.
James Redford, the actor's son, joked about another way Redford's presence in Utah has brought money to the state: "The speeding tickets." (Redford is known for his love of fast cars.)
More seriously, James Redford praised his father's appreciation of Utah. "The love he has for Utah is visceral, it's primal, and it's deeply personal," James Redford said, saying that love has been passed down to Robert Redford's children and grandchildren. "We all live in different places, but Utah will always be our deep home."