For the urban dweller, havinga raccoon in the dumpster or seeing an opossum patroling the back yard at twilight counts as a glimpse of wildlife. But when as many as 400 elk congregate in Harrison Ford’s back yard during mating season, the wildlife gets really wild.
And the actor likes to keep it as wild as possible — as remote as it can be and as active as it might be — and not only for the elk, moose, mule deer and open-range cattle that graze there, but for nesting bald eagles and a rare great blue heron rookery, for the sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans, for the coyotes and badgers, and for the cutthroat trout that swim just off the Ford-owned banks of the Snake River.
“All of this wildlife needs sanctuary,” says Ford in a telephone interview from Wyoming. “A lot of the nearby ranches were being subdivided into what I call ranchettes,” a word he uses as if it might be a mild obscenity. “The big animals need access to the river, and for migration, too.”
Ford’s active involvement on the board of the Jackson Hole Land Trust is just one of his environmentally conscious and humanitarian endeavors, which included, in January, his work in helping to free two political prisoners in Tibet.
It also incorporates his ongoing work as a board member of Conservation International, the Washington, D.C.-based nongovernmental organization that’s currently working in 20 nations to preserve bio-diversity.
Ford says he originally intended to buy “the 20 acres that had everything I dreamed about” for his ranch home, but now owns 768 acres in the mountain valley known as Jackson Hole, in Teton County, Wyo.
Ford found that he could save taxes by having the land devalued by joining the Land Trust. By doing so and earmarking the land for little or no development , the valley’s wildlife and natural resources are also preserved.
“Harrison is a very active board member and he and Melissa (Matheson) have designated that 379 of their acres will never be developed,” says Leslie Mattson , interim director of the Land Trust. “The important thing about his property is that it’s along the river, which is popular land for development here. It’s significant that this piece of land be preserved for wildlife. Harrison is also a very generous donor.”
Ford’s charitable work includes public service announcements for the Environmental Media Association, Save the Children Foundation, American Cancer Society, Will Rogers Foundation and the Archaelogical Advisory Group in six different states — Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina. He needs a heightened profile as a heroic figure the way the beauty of Jackson Hole needs another “ranchette.”
But a little bit of art informed life in January when Ford and Matheson, working with Amnesty International and the U.S. government, put pressure on Chinese officials to free the mountain guide, Gendun Rinchen, and a monk from a Chinese prison. The two were being held on charges of treason against the state.
“My wife wrote an article that appeared on the op-ed page of The New York Times about it,” recalls Ford. “Amnesty International primarily handled it, and I am not a public spokesman for that organization, although I appreciate what it does. We focused some attention on the situation. Gendun had been our guide when we went to Tibet a while back. He tried to present a letter that listed human rights violations and listed Tibetan prisoners who weren’t accounted for. He was accused of crimes against the state, but Amnesty saw that he was freed earlier this year.”
Ford says that he regards most of his political decisions as private matters and explains he has never felt it necessary to endorse candidates.
“People would listen to me and it would be accountable to my celebrity and not to my expertise, which might not be that expert anyway, depending on the topic,” says Ford. “Any candidate’s argument suffers when it comes to who has the biggest all-star celebrity team instead of expertise on the issues.”
Ford decided that Conservation Intl. was in line with his basic environmental concerns, only this time on a global level. And two of his friends — entertainment lawyer Skip Brittenham and Patagonia clothing entrepreneur and mountain climber Evan Shenard — were on the board of directors of CI.
“The one thing that attracted me about the policies and practices of Conservation Intl. ism that it emphasizes economy as an aspect of any solution to preserve the environment,” says Ford.
Peter Seligmann, CI’s chairman and CEO, calls Ford “a very, very key participant on the board” and says that the actor’s voluntary work is supplemented by his financial donations to the organization, which presently has 200 staff members in the field working in such remote locales as the Amazon rainforest, Madagascar, Indonesia, Central America, the Andean slopes of South America and in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.
“He’s very interested in having the organization focused on priorities and not getting distracted by the flavor of the day,” says Seligmann.
“There are two sides to Harrison: The public persona and the private person,” continues Seligmann. “People who know him very well as an individual know him as a brilliant, generous, thoughtful man. He can deal especially well with kids, eyeball-to-eyeball.
“I was in the Chaco Rey region of Colombia where we’re trying to create a 2 million acre biosphere reserve. After negotiations with the minister of economic development, the gentleman turned to me and said: ‘Do you think you can get Harrison Ford’s autograph? It is for my son.’
“Harrison understands what he can do for the environment, and he’s doing it.”