While Hollywood may have long ago recognized Robert Redford as one the most gifted and versatile actors of the 20th Century, and independent filmmakers may have embraced him as their staunchest advocate by launching the Sundance Film Festival, it was the Australian wallabys and American Bald Eagles of the world who had one final award to bestow the actor and filmmaker last week: nation’s top conservationist.
By John Arundel
Photos by Alfredo Flores
At a 75th anniversary gala made notable by the scores of zoo animals that populated the pre-dinner reception and ballroom, the National Wildlife Federation honored Redford as its Conservationist of the Year and bestowed seven other awardees with its National Conservation Achievement at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill.
Budget talks and impasses on the Hill be damned. The real political animals of Washington had been sprung from their cages and end-of-the-day feeding time at the National Zoo, and they wanted Oscar-like time on the red carpet like everyone else.
Actor Chevy Chase and his wife of 30 years Jayni (who was also honored) joined naturalist Dave Mizejewski with a wallaby on the step and repeat, with the Australian marsupial nodding happily and excitedly at the NWF’s selection, a celebrity spouse who’s supported scores of environmental groups over the years, with an emphasis on education. “We try to get into schools because its much easier than getting into homes,” Jayni Chase said.
Ever the comedian, Chevy Chase touted his wife’s earth-conscious virtues by remarking that if he blew his nose into a tissue, she’d probably respond, “Did you have to?”
Other awardees included First Lady Michelle Obama (who was a no show) with the Special 75th Anniversary Conservation Award; Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) for Government; AVEDA for Corporate Leadership; the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for Philanthropy; Dr. Virginia Burkett for Science; and Grace Breitenbeck for Youth.
But it was Redford, mostly, who was the main course of the evening.
NWF president Larry Schweiger saluted him as a “dedicated conservationist and environmental leader,” who for 35 years has repeatedly focused attention on the importance of developing renewable energy, safeguarding clean water and protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, while warning against the “harsh impacts” of global warning.
“Bob has leveraged his profile to help heighten mass public awareness of the most pressing conservation issues,” Schweiger said in presenting the award. He added that some of his most successful efforts have focused on raising worldwide attention in opposition to new coal-fired power plants, and recently turning his attention to the devastating Gulf oil disaster to generate private funds for the restoration of the damaged ecosystem.
In accepting the award, Redford said he was 14 when his parents first drove him to Yosemite National Park and he first stood in awe of the “raw power of nature at work,” and between “a few acting jobs in between,” dedicated his life to preserving it.
“The efforts of the National Wildlife Federation are more necessary now than ever to protect our natural resources and to prepare the next generation of environmental stewards,” said Redford, adding that the “rancorous political discourse in Washington” was not lending itself towards formative progress.
“Why does it always have to be surge and repeat? It makes no sense to me,” he told the audience of about 600 attendees. “On the one hand, you have an administration that believes in it and you make some gains. Then you have a new administration that’s more about ideology and you get set back.
“As for me, I will always be committed to it despite the ideological screaming and talk about who’s winning or losing. It’s up to us; that’s the story that needs to be told. It’s a planet that’s hurting because of us.”
The Vienna-based advocacy group has been honoring conservation heroes since 1965, through its Conservation Achievement Awards and annual dinner, known informally as the “Connie Awards.”
Previous honorees have included former President Jimmy Carter, former Vice President Al Gore, author and New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lady Bird Johnson, the Anheuser-Busch Companies and CNN founder Ted Turner.
The evening’s hosts were actress and singer Gloria Reuben, known for her role as Jeannie Boulet on the hit medical drama ER, and Mizejewski, the host and co-producer of “Backyard Habitat” on the Animal Planet.
At the conclusion of the dinner, attendees were asked to plant their dinner menu in a garden, as it was printed on recycled parchment full of seeds, and to take home the stunning orchids at each table for a “beautiful garden of wild flowers.”
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