Archived Story

Doug Phillips discusses preserving state’s diversity

Published 7:27pm Monday, March 3, 2014

For the final installment of the current Horizon’s Unlimited Lecture Series Monday, Dick Bronson invited a well-known ally from many of his battles to preserve the state’s environment and waterways.

Dr. Doug Phillips came in looking as though he’d come straight from the wilderness, wearing hiking boots, camouflage pants and a faded flannel button-up. And for good reason; he’d spent the morning at his home, a “hideaway” in the Oakmulgee District of the Talladega National Forest.

Throughout his chat with more than 50 area residents, Phillips explained how he channeled the show beloved by students and public television viewers into efforts to preserve the state’s “grand corridor of ecological diversity.”

Over the last 30 years of filming Discovering Alabama documentaries, Phillips said his job was “to make sure everyone is sufficiently wowed by your wonderful state.” For Monday’s lecture, he played a few clips highlighting some of the state’s most picturesque features, such as the Little River Canyon near Fort Payne.

Phillips said he often is called to sit on committees that discuss land use, and he finds too often the group’s focus is to help the state “catch up with Atlanta.”

Gwinnett County, Ga., was a largely rural area adjacent to the Peach City just 50 years ago, he said, but land use maps now show it’s been “completely urban- and suburbanized.”

“We are sitting ducks for the Atlanta phenomenon,” Phillips said, “and too often we have our leaders beating the drum for it.”

But what state leaders don’t realize in their drive for development is the unique environmental diversity that makes Alabama special. Holding a worn map of Alabama’s geological regions, he noted the only state that comes close is California, and that’s only by virtue of its size.

“This is one of the last remaining territories of ecological diversity left in the nation,” he said.

The state has more species of trees than any other state in the union, he said, and more than 70 unique forest families. The state boasts more than 70,000 miles of rivers and streams, with a plethora of unique organisms.

“When you add it all up, Alabama is one of the most naturally diverse regions on earth,” he said.

The subject of one of the first Discovering Alabama documentaries, the Little River Canyon recently was granted protection as a national preserve. When the initial documentary was produced in 1985, Phillips said, there were plans to build a subdivision on the rim of the scenic, pristine wilderness. The effort led by Phillips and others stopped the development and helped cement its preservation. The biggest thing people can do to preserve the wild areas they love, he said, is to stay involved locally and to start paying attention.

“Otherwise the right people with the right money are going to get their way,” he said.

Phillips said one thing he hates is when people recognize him as “the TV guy,” because that’s not how he sees himself.

“I like to be known as an environmental activist,” he said.

Discovering Alabama is one facet of his activism, he said, though he has often taken public stances on a variety of issues. His drive for state regulation of strip mines even got him “blacklisted, fired, my life threatened.”

“There was even an attempt on my life, but they just missed me,” Phillips said.

Discovering Alabama has won Emmy Awards for its examination of the state’s vital role in the space program and for the episode exploring the environmental impact of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In addition to regular airings on Alabama Public Television, the show is used as a teaching aid in every school system in the state.

Residents asked Phillips questions about hot-button issues like global warming, hydraulic “fracking” for natural gas and pushes to preserve endangered species that often butt against efforts at development.

He urged those in attendance to support “clear-thinking, rational folks who don’t appear to be ‘on the edge.’” That is how many fierce environmentalists are written off as kooks, he said, though the subjects of their activism are often important to local ecosystems.

Bronson, who has been a key player in efforts to preserve or improve water quality in Alabama, said Phillips has often joined him in meetings where half the room was filled with “three-piece business suits.”

“And Doug walks in just like this, sometimes with mud still on his boots,” Bronson said. “He doesn’t pull any punches. Doug does sometimes make people mad, and that’s a good thing.”

As Phillips walked back to his pickup after Monday’s lecture, someone asked where he was headed.

“I’ve got to go to work,” he said.

Where does work take you today, she asked.

“To the woods.”

Which ones.

“I ain’t telling.”