He flies to the rescue, treks through jungles, dodges snakes, and saves rare treasures—and that's just in his private life. On-screen, such pursuits have made Harrison Ford, 65, an adventure icon. (The first Indiana Jones film in almost 20 years, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, just opened.)
But since 1991 the actor, pilot, and environmentalist has been moonlighting as a strategic guide for Conservation International—supporting biodiversity research, protecting endangered species, and working to persuade corporations with a history of polluting the planet to become stewards of it instead.
Ford spoke to us about high stakes, hard landings, lost worlds, and why he prefers his adventures unscripted.
ADVENTURE: You were raised in the suburbs of Chicago—not exactly a place known for awakening eco-consciousness.
HARRISON FORD: I was just thinking about this the other day. I remembered a moment in my life that I hadn't remembered for a long time—that happens more as you get older [laughs]. When I was 12, we moved outside the city to former agricultural land where they built all these tract homes. There was an irrigation ditch, and next to it was this little oasis of nature where a fox lived. I would go out there often and sit by myself. The fox became used to me and would come close—ten, six feet [two meters] away. And I think there's something about that experience that tilted me toward nature in a different way than a visit to a national park or something would. I was struck by the fact that these houses we were living in, these streets we were driving down, had displaced something. That more than us belonged there.
A: Jackson, Wyoming—where you spend much of your time—is home to some pretty committed environmentalists. That must have influenced your thinking.
HF: Absolutely. About 20 years ago when I was looking for a place outside the silly state [of California] to spend some time, I went to Sun Valley, but it was too built-up for me. So my wife at the time and I rented a car and drove toward Jackson. I'd only heard about it, and we saw it for the first time from Teton Pass. I was blown away. We knew immediately that we wanted to be there. A number of people involved in CI [Conservation International] live in Jackson, and when I became a landowner there, I felt a sense of stewardship for the Earth that I hadn't really experienced before.
A: CI says you personally ask tough questions and don't compromise your values. But CI partners with big corporations, some of which have been big polluters. Isn't that a compromise?
HF: No. It's an opportunity. We've worked hard to influence those people who have an effect on the environment, and that includes large multinational corporations. I'm very comfortable with our relationships with these companies. I feel we have the opportunity to influence them in effective ways.
A: Is that the future of conservation, partnering with global
corporations? That seems like an uneasy alliance.
HF: I believe that it's the future of conservation in general. One of the tenets of CI has always been to offer economic opportunities in developing countries, where providing for people's basic needs puts a lot of pressure on the environment. By adopting better practices, international corporations can be very important partners in protecting nature.
A: Were you, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas able to work any green themes into the new Indiana Jones film?
HF: No, no, we just stuck to running, jumping, and falling down [laughs]. The only tangential thing is an interest in ancient cultures. These are fantasies—they don't really deal with real life issues in that way. There have been a lot of people involved in trying to use film to influence people in a positive way, dispose them toward protection of the environment. And I think that's all useful, but I think that people can become inured to it. There are all kinds of movies and all kinds of moviegoers. So it's not a monolithic audience any longer. It takes enormous skill to develop a cogent argument in an atmosphere of entertainment.
A: Some years ago you said, "The last thing we need is another 100,000 people running around endangered places in Michael Jackson T-shirts." Tourism is now arguably the largest industry on the planet—far larger than Hollywood. Do you think it can be harnessed as an eco-opportunity?
HF: Well, I still have trepidation about bringing all these people to untrammeled wilderness. But it's proven to be an educational tool that's affected the people who've made those trips. They come away as more critical partners in conservation. My concern wasn't the tourists in Michael Jackson T-shirts, but the indigenous people who would end up wearing them.
A: You've visited some untrodden places with CI over the years. Any recent trips that really affected you?
HF: I went down to Venezuela and ended up renting a helicopter and flew with my sons to the tops of the tepuis, these freestanding jungle mesas, "lost worlds" as it were. In fact, it's almost impossible to access them without one. So we were able to land and spend some time there. We were trapped for about six hours by clouds that came in. Unbelievable. Spectacular environments. Very likely places where no other person had ever set foot before.
A: Your life list of places to see must be getting shorter.
HF: Oh, my God, the list is extraordinarily long. I'm desperate to get out there. I want to go back to the Pantanal in Brazil, I've never been to sub-Saharan Africa. I'd like to take my Caravan over there and do a flying safari. I've never flown to Alaska. It goes on and on.
A: You own two hybrid cars. But it sounds like you prefer going airborne.
HF: Basically. I fly myself everywhere. I like all kinds of flying, including practical flying for search and rescue. And I also like to fly into the backcountry, usually the Frank Church Wilderness in Idaho. I go with a group of friends, and we set up camp for about five days and explore little dirt strips and canyons.
A: The word around Jackson is that if you get stranded in the Teton Wilderness, Harrison Ford might airlift you out.
HF: There are 250 other people up there who train for search and rescue and devote much more of their lives to it than I do. I help sometimes if I'm called in. But when I rescue someone, two days later they appear on Good Morning America, and it seems like I was the only one involved, which isn't the case.
A: Is it true you were once in a helicopter crash?
HF: Worse than that: I was driving.
HF: Well, there was a mechanical failure while we were practicing power recovery autorotations. It was more or less a hard landing. Luckily, I was with another aviation professional and neither of us was hurt—and both of us are still flying.
A: How'd the helicopter make out?
HF: It wasn't quite intact.