A tall, slender, soft-spoken man silently makes his way into an outfitter shop in Mobile, Ala. He walks toward the back of the store where a projector and microphone await him. A crowd of about 40 people take their seats as a gentleman introduces the man, proudly boasting that the speaker the crowd will hear this night, Dr. Doug Phillips, has probably done more than anyone else to raise awareness about protecting the land, water, wildlife, and rural way of life in Alabama.
That is not an exaggeration. Everyone who knows "Dr. Doug" will verify that Phillips is the most passionate and vocal person in the fight to protect Alabama’s wild and natural areas. As Phillips will gladly point out, Alabama is recognized by the scientific community as one of the most ecologically and geologically significant areas in the world.
While teachers and school children know Dr. Doug from his work to create K-12 educational programs, most of the state knows him for his Emmy Award-winning Alabama Public Television show, Discovering Alabama, which first aired 33 years ago and is still running.
A Simple Request
The story of how the show began and how Phillips became the face for the state’s natural wonders began in the 1970s when he was working on a graduate degree in educational research at the University of Alabama. During that time, he pioneered the earliest outdoor and environmental education camps in the state.
"By the 1980s, with PhD in hand, I began working with schools to develop several of Alabama’s earliest environmental curricula," Phillips says. “At the behest of the teachers, I was asked to create ‘Discovering Alabama.’ ”
A Show that Makes a Difference
In the first episode, Phillips and his team took viewers to one of the most amazing natural wonders in Alabama, Little River Canyon. As the deepest canyon east of the Mississippi River, it has earned the name the "Grand Canyon of the South".
"Come to find out that when the show aired there was a developer that was poised to subdivide the canyon," says Phillips, adding that the development would have killed one of the most pristine streams in the country. “I got a call from a new group, Friends of Little River Canyon,” he says. “We got busy, and in short order the canyon became a national preserve and was protected.”
84 Episodes and Counting
That was 33 years ago, 84 episodes and counting, each with a unique voice that interweaves the host’s love of nature and history with explanations of why it’s critical to protect the environment. Walking a fine line, Phillips succeeds in educating the public without coming across as overly political or pushy. Topics have ranged from bats to tracing the history of Alabama’s state capitals to everything in between. It seems like the show has taken viewers to just about every outcrop, canyon, waterfall, and river in the state, but far from it. There are still plenty more places to explore and learn about.
Two of the episodes, "Alabama in Space" and “Oil Spill,” have garnered three Emmy Awards for Phillips and his crew. And, as you would expect, he gives much of the credit to his staff.
"Certainly my staff is deserving of much credit for their work," says Phillips. “I am extremely proud of their commitment.”
In addition, Phillips teamed up with photographer Robert Falls to write two highly acclaimed books, "Discovering Alabama: Forests" and “Discovering Alabama: Wetlands.” A third book, “Discovering Alabama: Countryside,” is in the works. It’s an offshoot of a recent episode of the series in which Phillips examines the importance of protecting the state’s rural way of life and discusses the current state of farming and urban sprawl.
Dr. Doug’s Favorites
Having explored much of Alabama’s wild area’s, Dr. Doug is frequently asked to share his favorite spot.
"If there was I wouldn’t tell," he says. “That would likely result in a wave of people putting pressure on the place. I’ve seen this kind of thing ruin wild places over the years. I encourage everyone to find one’s own favorite place.”
The next obvious question is what is his favorite episode? Turns out, there’s a two-part answer.
"Generally, my favorites are the ones in which Turkey is with me." Turkey was his faithful yellow Labrador that paddled, hiked, and explored with Phillips in many episodes.
When asked which episode has impacted viewers the most, he names more than one.
"It’s hard to give a single program," he says. “Alabama Countryside is among the strongest shows at presenting my major long-term concern, protecting rural Alabama. ‘A Walk in the Woods’ warrants mention. We were out of money and decided to simply go for a literal walk in the woods—no planning, no script, no great expense. The show turned out to be one of our most popular. ‘Natural Diversity’ was a real eye-opener for many and was instrumental in getting the Forever Wild program.”
In the early 1990s, the state began looking at creating a program to purchase and preserve land of environmental and historic significance. Eventually, the program was called Forever Wild.
When business owners began to debate environmentalists over the importance of Forever Wild, Phillips facilitated discussions between the two groups.
"Here were these groups who wouldn’t talk to each other," says Phillips. “There were people appointed to the committee specifically to kill the program before it got off the ground. It took about six months. I never used the word ‘environment.’ That automatically turns people off. I called it ‘Alabama’s natural heritage.’ That warmed their hearts.
I’ll never forget the day when the light bulb came on and they realized that this was their children’s future and that they could make a difference."
Phillips and his crew produced a special episode of the series devoted to the program and its importance. It aired one week before the voters of Alabama would weigh in on the topic.
"It was a surprise to all of us when the voting public in Alabama, a place notorious for being anti-environment, voted 90 percent in favor of the program. That was surprising. We got everyone on the same page."
How You Can Help Protect Alabama
There are plenty more lessons that need to be told on "Discovering Alabama" because, unfortunately, the urbanization of the state is spreading quickly. Phillips continues to be a voice to protect the state’s remarkable and fragile “natural heritage,” but he emphasizes that it it will take all of us to make it happen.
To "boil it down for the average citizen," Phillips offers the following five pieces of advice:
Pay attention. "If you find out about an environmental threat after the proverbial bulldozer is on the ground, you ain’t paying attention," he says.
Organize locally and join existing environmental organizations.
Follow the work of your city council and your county commission. "Such entities tend to operate as ‘closed-door boardrooms’ where troubling plans and policies can emerge," he says.
Make the effort to understand the complexities of an issue to understand both sides, or your advocacy will be seen as lacking credibility.
Speak up. "Maybe you don’t think sex and politics are not appropriate for polite company, but our natural environment is certainly appropriate."
"Discovering Alabama" can be seen every Sunday on your local Alabama Television station.
Originally written for BCBS of AL.