In a world where many are content to talk past one another, a Missoula filmmaker with deep Bitterroot Valley roots is highlighting the good that can come when people choose to work together.
Lara Weatherly Tomov is on a mission to share the stories of Montanans taking action to benefit both the health of their communities and the landscapes that surround them.
She is in the final editing stage of a four-part series called “Life in the Land” that explores collaborative efforts in different parts of the state with rich histories of diverse interests seeking out common ground.
Growing up as a “wild child” of the Bitterroot on the edge of the country’s largest wilderness in the Lower 48 states, Tomov said her upbringing encouraged living life unafraid and willing to embrace the unknown.
After graduating from Corvallis High School, she enrolled at college in Boston to study filmmaking. What she learned there opened opportunities to put her upbringing to the test with a solo backpack trip through Central America, where she filmed her first documentary on the health implications of chemicals on workers at banana plantations.
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“I was 20 years old and it was before the time of smartphones,” she said. “I threw myself into it … My upbringing had taught me how to travel independently and keep my head on a swivel.”
“During that time for me, it boiled down to the importance of being able to tell the story,” Tomov said. “Everything else fell by the wayside. It was about sharing these stories that weren’t out there in the public and no one was talking about.”
“It was my first experience of seeing the hunger that folks have to share their stories that weren’t being told,” she said. “And the responsibility that comes with holding someone’s story and being the one to get it out there.”
The experience that Tomov gained there and working in the Los Angeles film industry led to opportunities to see the world while working for Discovery, Travel and National Geographic channels.
“That took me to great places from the jungle to the Arctic to the desert,” she said. “A lot of the shows were backcountry travel adventure type shows … It was a great way for someone in their 20s to travel the world.”
“Over time, I realized that it wasn’t content that was feeding my soul, which is why I originally got into film,” Tomov said.
So she stepped away and enrolled in a UCLA graduate certificate program on sustainable systems, which opened up a whole new way of looking at the world through nature-based and holistic solutions.
After a stint with the Nature Conservancy, where she saw the importance of diverse groups working together to find common ground on a variety of issues, Tomov kept hearing about the need for those stories to be told.
In 2017, she and her husband moved to Missoula. Three years later, she started the website “Stories for Action,” which features both original and curated content of short-form media of stories about people coming together to find solutions to environmental and social issues.
Her work didn’t go unnoticed.
In 2020, a group of Montanans attended a gathering in Colorado of the Western Collaborative Conservation Network.
Roundup-area rancher Bill Milton was among those who made the trip.
Milton had seen what collaboration between diverse groups had accomplished over decades in Montana. He came home anxious to work with others to find a way to tell that story.
One thing led to another and Tomov’s name came to the forefront.
“I connected with Lara and told her she could really help us,” Milton remembered. “To her great credit, she agreed to do so even though we still had to raise the money to pay for the project … Everyone just trusted each other that we could make this happen.”
The series includes four short films about different regions in Montana, including the Central Montana Plains, Seeley-Swan Valley, Big Hole Valley and the Blackfeet Nation.
Blackfeet Nation tribal member Lailani Upham of Iron Shield Creative helped Tomov produce the film on the Blackfeet Nation.
The hope is the editing of the series will be completed in April. Initially, the films will be hosted on Tomov’s Stories for Action website and could be used as a centerpiece at the next gathering of Western Collaborative Conservation Network sometime this year. It will also be offered to other agencies and groups interested in the topic.
“This isn’t something that’s new,” Milton said. “People have been doing this kind of work forever but it’s essentially important right now.”
“Here we are where we’re worried about democracy,” he said. “We’re worried about world climate change but how do people respond? Where do you dig in? You can’t be everywhere. I think this watershed landscape community landscape approach is a very practical way for a community of people who want to collaborate and work together to improve their communities and protect their landscape and to create more locally-staged businesses.”
“This is how people will find a handhold on how to participate and feel confident that they are actually accomplishing something useful,” Milton said. “Along the way, you’re building up trust and relationships and you’re making this idea believable to others. What Lara is doing is helping people to realize that this can be done anywhere, in a neighborhood or million-acre landscape.”
Effective change can’t come in broad strokes from places thousands of miles away. Tomov said it’s vital that decision-making is shaped by listening to the people who live and work in the landscapes and communities.
Retaining working landscapes is critical for the health of the state when it’s done in a way that truly benefits the land and the communities, she said. That can only happen if diverse interests are willing to come together and truly listen to one another.
“Instead of just saying cattle ranching bad, environmentalism good or the opposite, there is this sweet spot in the middle where we all really need to dig into because otherwise we’ll get a result that no one wants,” Tomov said. “I think people are seeing that. At that moment when a rancher is forced to sell — which is happening left and right — especially after a drought year that was devastating for ranchers across the state, the first thing that’s going to come to that land is a subdivision and that doesn’t benefit any element of life on that land.”
“I think there’s a sweet spot where we can all work together,” she said. “I have been to all these places this summer and fall and seeing the success of that happening gives me promise. It’s been a real eye-opener on the ground to see what’s happening in a state that I grew up in and I thought I knew a good amount about. It really showed me the importance of listening to each other.”
“In the end, most of our needs are pretty darn similar,” Tomov said. “If we can recognize that, I think we can come up with some really neat solutions.”
A trailer for the series can be found at vimeo.com/manage/videos/526650957.