The Struggle To Protect Our Public Lands
We Talk With Documentary Filmmaker Garrett Martin About His New Movie, The River Runs On
In the beginning, all was water, or so goes the Cherokee story of how the world was made.
The legend is told in the opening to a new documentary, The River Runs On, which follows conservationists throughout southern Appalachia as they work to protect two of the most important national forests in America, Pisgah and Nantahala, some of the most biodiverse and visited forests in the country.
Most people assume that our public lands are protected, but it’s a little more complicated than that. Right now, many factors threaten the future of our public lands including commercial logging, gas pipelines, mining, climate change, and yes, even recreation.
More people than ever visited our protected and managed forests in 2020 with more than 168 million visits, creating a challenge of both meeting visitor demands and continuing the care for the long-term health of the forests and grasslands. And the trend of more visitors has continued last year and this year.
In addition, forestry operations like logging generate significant amounts of nonpoint source (NPS) pollution. States report that NPS pollution is the leading remaining cause of water quality problems and that these pollutants have harmful effects on drinking water supplies, recreation, fisheries, and wildlife.
In July, our executive editor, Suzanne Boothby, attended a screening of the new film, which looks at how the U.S. Forest Service created and finalized a management plan for two U.S. national forests—one that will last for the next 20 years or so.
The Pisgah-Nantahala Forest Plan was released in February 2023 after a 10-year planning process, outlining the management of more than a million acres of national forest in Western North Carolina.
The film is a meditation on our relationship to nature, our role in managing lands, and what it may mean for the future.
While the plan has been released, it’s not without controversy.
Just last week, The Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of MountainTrue, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, and Center for Biological Diversity, sent a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue, which is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act.
The letter explains how the Forest Service relied on inaccurate and incomplete information during the planning process, resulting in a Forest Plan that imperils endangered wildlife.
“The Forest Service’s management plan for the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forests is deeply flawed,” said Josh Kelly, Public Lands Field Biologist for MountainTrue, who is also featured in the film. “The Forest Service put commercial logging first, ignored the best science available, and is needlessly putting endangered species at risk of extinction. Our incredibly diverse ecosystems deserve a better Plan. The people who love and use these forests deserve a better Plan.”
The environmental groups were among an estimated 800 stakeholders who issued objections to the final plan last year.
After watching the film, we sent some questions to the filmmaker to learn more.
Garrett Martin is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, outdoor photographer, conservationist, and owner of the production company, VentureLife Films.
Q: What inspired you to make this film?
Garrett: I was inspired to make this film because of the beauty and uniqueness of the southern Appalachians. With the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests being two of the most biodiverse and visited national forests in the country, I wanted to make a film that explored that beauty and the complexities of our relationship with it. With the Pisgah-Nantahala Forest Plan being released, it just seemed like the perfect opportunity to meditate on our connection with nature and our role within it.
Q: Do you consider yourself an artist, activist, advocate... or something else? What motivates you to make films about the outdoors?
Garrett: I consider myself a filmmaker, first and foremost. My passion simply lies in telling stories that explore the world we live in. I've always been most compelled to make films about the natural world, as being in nature for me has always been a spiritual connection. It's where I feel most connected to God, to the universe, and where I feel most present.
In the modern world, we have become more and more detached from the outdoors and to me it feels like somewhat of a spiritual crisis. I suppose I make films about the outdoors to hopefully help people reconnect to the natural world around them and to reflect on their own relationship to nature, their own spirituality and what it means to them. I believe that the more people do that, the better the world will be.
Q: Did you encounter any challenges while making the film and how did you deal with them?
Garrett: The main challenges we faced were Covid challenges—not being able to film, having to avoid certain locations, struggling with funding etc. A film that should have taken a year or so ended up being three, so we had to be patient and also just accept that the budget we would have to work with would be next to nothing. Also, as most people did over the course of the pandemic, I had a lot of internal change going on, which inevitably changed the direction of the film. Because of that, it was a challenge to bring it all together in the end into one cohesive piece.
Q: What do you hope people learn about public lands and wild spaces from the film?
Garrett: I hope people learn just how precious and important public lands and wild spaces are. With the developing world, we have less and less of these spaces and they become more and more important to conserve. We also need to understand that we are not separate from these lands, but a part of them. As much as we try, we can't control everything. In the end, nature is always going to win. The question is if we will still be here when it does. I think we need to take a step back and think more about how we integrate into nature, rather than constantly trying to fight against it.
Q: We talk a lot here at The Brockovich Report about pollution and how it impacts our drinking water and watersheds. What insights or advice do you have for people who want to see change in their world?
Garrett: Pollution is the perfect example of how everything within nature, including us, is connected. If you pollute in your own small stream, that trickles into a larger river, within a much larger watershed, and eventually into the ocean that connects the world.
If people want to see change in their own world, it starts with your own choices. I think people need to reflect more on their own relationship to nature, how they interact with the natural world, and the impacts they may be causing. As a modern society, we're very externally focused on solutions most of the time, which is necessary, but typically doesn't solve the root of our problems. We first need to address the source of the pollution (our internal compass) and then everything downstream can be given a chance to heal.
The film will be released publicly the last weekend of September and will be available on major online streamers. Stay updated at www.theriverrunson.com.
We all have a say in how public lands are managed. I know it can be intimidating to get involved or you might feel like you don’t have all the facts to speak up, and that’s why movies like this one are so important. I encourage you to watch and learn!
Let’s continue the conversation in the comments below. What’s happening in the public lands near you and how can you get more involved?