Film production led by Kevin Costner damaged wildlife habitat in the Swell

Four-part ‘Horizon’ is being shot in southern Utah thanks to generous tax incentives to Oscar-winning actor

(Bureau of Land Management) Officials inspect damage to public lands resulting from a major film production in the San Rafael Swell in September 2022. The Oscar-winning actor Kevin Costner has been in Utah shooting a four-part Western movie, titled “Horizon.” Part 1 was shot last year in the Swell and Grand County and Parts 2 and 3 are to be shot this year in Washington County.

A major Hollywood production working in Utah’s San Rafael Swell last year damaged a state wildlife management area, or WMA, by camping on and bulldozing a road through sensitive habitat along the San Rafael River in possible violation of its filming permit, according to documents obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune.

To make things right, Kevin Costner’s production company cut checks to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) totaling nearly $69,000.

The damage to the Upper San Rafael WMA has yet to be repaired and raises questions about whether big-budget film producers can be trusted to treat fragile public lands with a gentle hand. Friction between Utah land managers and film companies go back years.

On the one hand, agencies welcome filming on Utah’s spectacular landscapes so they can be appreciated by the rest of the world, but crews are known to make filming decisions on the fly in ways that may deviate from their permits.

Shot outside Moab in 2012, the “The Lone Ranger,” a Disney Western starring Johnny Depp, offers a case in point. The Bureau of Land Management held up production on a scene where actors rode their horses 50 abreast across ground covered in delicate crytobiotic soils. The plan was for the horsemen to walk just two abreast to minimize the impact, but 50 abreast made for a more compelling shot and the BLM allowed it to proceed.

Costner’s company landed generous tax rebates from Utah made possible by a 2022 law Costner himself lobbied for. The Oscar-winning actor, director and producer then decided to shoot his four-part epic Western, titled “Horizon, an American Saga,” in southern Utah, using its redrock country as a stage for depicting the nation’s westward expansion in the years following the Civil War. Costner directs, writes and stars in what has been billed as the crowning achievement in his storied Hollywood career.

Parts 2 and 3 are to be shot this year in Washington County, which is banking on a $90 million economic boost from the production.

(Bureau of Land Management) Water bottles left on BLM land by a film production.

“The State of Utah, with its intrinsic beauty, is the perfect backdrop for the story of Horizon and can be said to be its own character in our story,” Costner said in a release announcing the project’s return to southern Utah.

Part 1 was shot in Grand County last year, but for two weeks in September Costner’s company Horizon Series was in the Swell, Utah’s famed landscape of sinuous canyons, tilted sandstone landforms and weirdly sculpted rock, where battle scenes were filmed at Fullers Bottom.

The filming and staging activities did not strictly adhere to parameters set by land management agencies, according to internal BLM emails. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance obtained the communications through a records request and shared them with The Tribune.

The emails and electronic messages indicate BLM staffers were unhappy with the company’s lack of timely cooperation with an environmental assessment (EA) they prepared ahead of the two-week shoot in the Swell.

“We need a moratorium on motion pictures being filmed,” one BLM staffer wrote to colleagues on Sept. 1 as filming in the Swell began. “It was definitely a learning experience.”

During and after the filming, BLM personnel were frustrated with the film managers’ apparent failure to adhere to the terms of the permit and misrepresentations about the amount and type of equipment that would be used.

“I would say that the State, UDWR, and BLM are not happy with results of the filming that took place on public lands here,” one Price-based staffer wrote to colleagues on Oct. 12, a month after the Horizon shoot. “The [Horizon] series did take advantage of the situation and made this production seem smaller than what actually took place. Some examples of this [are], the two track road that was created ended up being dozed in, instead of a few UTV rides into scenes they hired huge trucks from Moab that carry 20 plus people and the size of a small monster truck, camping took place all over the DWR.”

(Bureau of Land Management) Damage from a production in the San Rafael Swell.

When asked about the damage in the wildlife area, however, DWR officials downplayed its severity and praised Horizon Series as a responsible partner whose generosity was helping improve habitat.

“The filming company promptly paid the fee and were very compliant throughout the project,” agency spokeswoman Faith Heaton Jolley said in an email. Camping was allowed in the WMA under the state permit and film crews did not camp “all over” it, she added.

“Many of the areas used for camping and staging were within a reasonable distance from the existing road,” Heaton Jolley said. “However, there was one main staging area that occurred on the BLM/DWR boundary adjacent to the permitted access area that was never identified in their application.”

BLM officials were not available this week to discuss the “Horizon” incident. In an email exchange with a DWR official, acting field office manager Kyle Beagley contemplated issuing the production company a trespassing notice in connection with the Fullers Bottom shoot.

The shooting took place on federal land in three spots in the Swell — Buckhorn Wash Pictograph Panel, Fullers Bottom and Red Knoll — while the crews staged from an adjacent state-owned property, according to an environmental assessment completed by the BLM. Most of the project’s staging was done on state trust lands, but to access Fullers Bottom shooting locations, the film crew had to improve an existing sandy road through the WMA.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

DWR manages dozens of WMAs around the state to protect sensitive habitat for fish, birds and big game. The agency acquired about 450 acres of bottomlands in 1980 to incorporate into the Upper San Rafael River WMA. These bottomlands are the ground Costner’s crews needed to cross to reach less sensitive parts of Fullers Bottom, where an Apache encampment was erected. As many as 100 actors and crew members were involved with these camp scenes, which featured an attack by soldiers or settlers on Native Americans, according to the EA.

DWR issued a special use permit to upgrade and use the old road across the wildlife area, an agency regional supervisor told the Emery County Public Lands Council on Tuesday.

“They built the road and that ended up being way wider and longer and deeper and more severe — damaging, if you will — than we thought it was going to be,” Chris Wood said. “We had concerns. We went to the filming company and asked for additional money. They wrote another check. We didn’t love the fact they had to go through our property to do this filming. But they did everything that we asked them to do.”

What prompted Wood to bring up the damage at Tuesday’s council meeting was The Tribune’s inquiry to Heaton Jolley the day before.

“From our perspective, we’re going to tell them what the film company was good to work with,” Wood said. “We’re going to reclaim the land. And they offered up two different checks for mitigation. And things are good.”

As part of its permit, Horizon agreed to pay a $53,000 fee and the money would be used to rehabilitate past degradation on the WMA and erase the road the film crew used, according to Heaton Jolley. After the damage was discovered, DWR asked for and received an additional $16,000.

“When you build a road, it’s hard to take that road back and so we don’t want any evidence that it was ever a road again,” Wood told the public lands council. “I think we’re going to get in there and grade it some more, plant some stuff, and there’s also money to do some additional work around that WMA.”

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