Trample the rebellion, but not the flowers. Photographer: Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images
Trample the rebellion, but not the flowers. Photographer: Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

The press in Britain and Ireland is having great fun with the news that Unesco is investigating the new “Star Wars” movie. Yes, you heard that right. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is asking for a report about possible damage done when the crew spent several days filming on Skellig Michael, a rocky outcropping just off the coast of County Kerry in Ireland.

“Star Wars in row with UNESCO,” chortled the Daily Mail. The Irish Independent called the contretemps a “Star Wars war.”

The row arises because Skellig Michael, home to the ruins of a monastery more than 13 centuries old, has been a Unesco world heritage site since 1996. But the issue isn’t the ruins. It’s the wildlife. Conservationists have complained that they weren’t granted access to the island during the filming. The Irish Navy secured Skellig Michael against unwanted visitors while the crew was onsite.

“We can’t speculate what the filming of Star Wars on the site will do to the wildlife,” said a Unesco spokesman quoted by the BBC. The Irish government responded that the filming was allowed only after a thorough scientific study, and that “experts” were on the scene to be sure that no harm was done. Unesco has asked Ireland for a written report.

None of this is new. All the way back in the dark ages of sci-fi -- that is, when “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” was being filmed in and around San Francisco in the 1980s -- conservation authorities, concerned about marine life, vetoed a special effect that would have involved setting off small explosions in the water. The shot was produced in a studio instead.

And that was for the best. As my readers know, film is a medium I love, and bureaucracy generally leaves me cold. But filmmakers have no special privilege to disturb the sensitive ecological balance that so many have fought so hard to protect. So I trust that Unesco will soon get its report, and that the wildlife -- it’s evidently mating season for some -- will turn out to be undisturbed.

Still, the bureaucrats aren’t quite finished with Skellig Michael. During the filming, the island was closed to tourists, so the boatmen who usually ferry visitors back and forth couldn’t earn a living. The filmmakers made it up to them by hiring the boats to carry equipment instead. Now the boatmen are under investigation by the Irish government for ferrying cargo without a license. This is why people so often feel that government itself operates in a galaxy far, far away: one agency closes down your business for several days, and another chases you for trying to make ends meet.

To contact the writer of this article: Stephen L. Carter at stephen.carter@yale.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net