Mike Matz: 'This American Land' TV Series Showcases Diverse Wilderness Advocates

Your Wilderness - September 2012

Americans hold a special affinity for their land. Owning a quarter-acre, five acres, or 35 acres on which we can plant a backyard garden, pasture a horse or two, or graze some livestock is a fundamental fulfillment of the American dream.

As citizens, we also have the good fortune to be owners of a vast and varied public estate: 650 million acres of national parks, wildlife refuges, conservation and recreation areas, seashores, wilderness, and unreserved federal lands. These are places we can all use for camping, hiking, biking, boating, hunting, fishing, or picnicking. We have myriad opportunities to get away and soak in spectacular vistas and stunning views, whether in the hardwood forests of the East, the towering mountains of the West, or the sweeping prairies and lake country in between.

These uniquely American landscapes provide clean water and fresh air, prime habitat for wildlife such as grizzly bears and bighorn sheep, and natural oases for endemic plants such as Indian paintbrush or showy lady slippers. They are havens for endangered species and provide outdoor laboratories for the study of biological systems, silviculture, or archaeology. These lands give children the chance to participate in nature education programs, catch leopard frogs and garter snakes, and play in rivers and lakes on hot summer days.

The second season of the television series “This American Land,” broadcasting on PBS, devotes eight segments to some of these wild treasures. One PBS affiliate said, “There's nothing quite like this on national television.” The producers of the show have teamed with the Pew Charitable Trusts to showcase how people from all walks of life are joining together  to protect America's natural heritage for future generations. “Our mission is to bring our viewers the kind of serious yet entertaining conservation journalism that broadens their knowledge of critical issues with stories that they won't see anywhere else,” said executive producer Gary Strieker. “Each segment will focus on unique and little-known places that deserve federal protection as wilderness areas.”

The shows feature regular people, not paid actors. They could be your neighbors. They live near special places they want to see protected, and they talk about why they are working to build local support. They describe the care they have taken to speak with various stakeholders and build support among city and county officials, local businesses, Native American tribes, and members of Congress. 

The first four segments, highlighting residents' efforts to safeguard these American lands as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, have begun airing.  One features Josh Lautenberg and his wife and two children talking about why they are working to have 342,000 acres of national forest in central Colorado set aside as designated wilderness.  “This is our escape.  This is our solitude,” Lautenberg says. In Tennessee, where legislation has been introduced to protect 20,000 acres in the Cherokee National Forest, lumber company owner Rudd Montgomery says, “We need to save as much of this kind of land as we can...for our kids and their grandkids.”  Andre Carrier is a casino owner in Eureka, NV, and his business is one of 100 supporting a campaign to establish a 120,000-acre national conservation area and 225,000-acre wilderness area, because the people who visit this natural splendor drive the local economy.  California's Mojave Desert is the ancestral land of Barbara Durham, a member of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe who wants almost 400,000 acres protected as wilderness to preserve the culture and customs of the Shoshones.

One theme of each of the segments, and in upcoming shows spotlighting efforts in Arizona, Idaho, Montana, and New Mexico, is the common ground that people find in helping to safeguard these places.  What is the thread that binds them together?  Many will say it is the desire to give “the highest form of protection”—designation as wilderness—to our shared public estate.  That is truly what inspires these regular folks to do what they do to ensure that we leave behind a lasting legacy.

Check your PBS listings for local air times of “This American Land,” hosted by Bruce Burkhardt, a former environmental reporter for CNN, and Caroline Raville.  Or for a preview of the first four segments on wilderness campaigns, click here.

Watch a clip from this season of "This American Land"