The Priest and Nuns rock formation is seen from an area of Professor Valley used in the filming of the Lone Ranger starring Johnny Depp. The Moab to Monument Valley Film Commission recently expressed concern about an incident that took place between a BLM employee and Lone Ranger film crew at the location. [Kristin Millis/Moab Sun News]

The Moab to Monument Valley Film Commission has repeatedly expressed concern regarding an incident between a Bureau of Land Management employee and the creative team from the Lone Ranger at a filming site on July 6.

The conflict occurred when last minute changes were made regarding a film permit on BLM land in the Professor Valley area. The director wanted to move a set and have horsemen ride 50-abreast, rather than 50 horsemen riding two abreast. The BLM employee on site was concerned about how the changes would affect the cryptobiotic soil and vegetation. While the film crew was able to have all the changes they requested, they expressed frustration at how the issue was handled by the BLM employee.

Tara Penner, director of the film commission, and Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison both shared this concern in a meeting between the Grand County Council and BLM representatives on July 17.

“We had an issue on BLM land. I’m not here to debate what happened. It was a substantial disagreement, and a comment made by the producer and director is that they would never come back to Moab because of this issue,” Sakrison said. “It is an economic boon to our community. You have a lot of property they want to film on. It would be a good investment for the BLM to understand how Hollywood works.”

At the July 17 meeting, BLM state director Juan Palma said that he would meet with the Utah State Film Commission. A meeting is planned Aug. 15. While the topic of film permitting is on the agenda, there is no specific reference to the incident that occurred during the filming of the Lone Ranger, said Jessica Gerdetto, external relations for Utah state BLM office.

Penner presented a letter to the Grand County Council at their Aug. 7 meeting regarding the formation of a committee to resolve the incident.

“It was recently brought to my attention that the proposal for a committee to be formed, in response to an incident between a BLM staff member and the Lone Ranger creative team, will be on your upcoming agenda. The purpose of this committee would be to find a resolution, as well as discover a way to prevent a similar incident from occurring in the future. This matter is of great concern to the Moab to Monument Valley Film Commission, and the proposed committee has our full support,” Penner wrote.

County councilman Jim Nyland expressed frustration at the Aug. 7 council meeting.

“I want to know exactly what took place,” Nyland said. “I want to make sure no one at the BLM is using their position for a personal agenda.”

The Council voted to create a committee to meet with BLM staff to summarize what happened on July 6 and to report suggestions that would enhance the Moab area as a welcoming film destination.

The Lone Ranger crew spent 14 days in the Moab area filming at eight different BLM sites. According to a Disney spokesman, the estimated financial impact on the local economy was $4.5 million. The production hired 230 locals in a variety of roles including extras, drivers, medics and production assistants.

“There is a positive impact when the money goes toward employees who live here. The induced and indirect effect creates more jobs,” said BLM Moab area economic specialist Bill Stevens. “Think of it as a rock thrown into a pond and all these ripples fan out. Any money that goes into the economy is further spent throughout the economy. The more money that is spent here, the more the impact.”

Rock Smith, Moab field office manager, was very aware of the potential impact. When he was informed of the July 6 incident he asked Penner who he needed to address to resolve the issue. He wrote an email date July 9 for Penner to distribute to those involved in the project.

His email opens with the words, “I would like to apologize for the problems that occurred during the filming at the Professor Valley area last Friday.”

He addressed the issues that occurred during the filming and ended with a second apology. “Again I hope that you are able to accept this apology and we can continue to work together in the positive way were able to prior to the above mentioned incident. I have had extensive discussions with the employee involved and I believe this will be a valuable, if painful, learning experience for her.”

Smith said that changes to the film permit at the Professor Valley location were made late in the process.

The original plan was for a scene that had 50 cavalrymen riding two abreast down a hill on BLM land to a railroad camp set that would be on private land. The private landowner pulled approval and changes needed to be made.

“They were in a quandary because now they would have to film from different angles.

They now wanted to put the set on BLM land,” Smith said.

The film crew then made a change with the cavalry to ride 50-abreast, rather than the original two abreast. The director wanted to have the Priest and the Nuns formation in the background, reminiscent of John Wayne movies that had been shot in the same area. There was a long discussion and negotiation at the film site.

“She had to make an on-the-spot decision. In the end the decision was what they wanted. In the end, I think they got the shot they wanted,” Smith said.

Smith said there were three major concerns on the BLM land adjacent to State Route 128 and the private ranch road at Professor Valley: Cryptobiotic soil crust, black brush and the visual impact for those driving on the scenic byway within the Colorado River Special Recreation Management Area.

“We didn’t want to create a big scar the public would see,” Smith said.

Smith has since been to the site where filming occurred. He could not see any substantial impact to the land.

“The decision process was the problem. There was an inexperienced employee who was both new to management and to the film industry,” Smith said. “If we have new people working with film companies we will do a better job of mentoring them.”

The Lone Ranger had eight film permits during their fifteen day shoot. BLM closed down the Gold Bar Recreation Area on State Route 279 for a full month so the film crew could use it exclusively as base camp. The field office also closed trailheads for the film crew during shooting.

The BLM Moab Field Office has issued 26 permits so far for 2012; 28 permits in 2011; and 38 permits in 2010. Gerdetto confirmed that the Moab Field Office issues more permit than any other field office in the state, other than Salt Lake.

“We have a good history of working with the film industry. When a project comes in, it is priority. We do have issues when they want to do more than we agreed to,” Smith said. “We will continue to give filming a high priority while protecting resources.”