Conservation Outdoors

Conservation: The River Runs On

Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo by Garrett Martin

By Emma Castleberry

The River Runs On, a feature-length documentary film exploring the management of the Pisgah and Nantahala Forests, will be available on most streaming platforms in late September.

“There’s a tagline that a lot of people use around Western North Carolina that it’s one of the most biodiverse regions in the temperate world,” says director Garrett Martin. “I became interested in exploring what that truly meant, what makes this region so special and why it’s so important to protect.” During this exploration, he learned about the Pisgah-Nantahala Forest Plan, a guide for future management of these forests that was recently finalized after a decade of work. “I realized that the plan would be the perfect opportunity to not only explore the idea of why this region is so unique but to explore our own relationship to the land, our connection to nature and our role in managing it,” Martin says.

Looking Glass Falls. Photo by Garrett Martin

The film centers around four experts: hiker and mother Jennifer Pharr Davis; naturalist Drew Lanham; public lands biologist Josh Kelly; and Tommy Cabe, a tribal forest resource specialist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI). The film examines the role of the forest service in protecting and managing these precious areas, but more than that, it highlights a deep human connection to the natural world and the many ways that connection can manifest. “In the modern world, we have grown to view ourselves as separate from nature, in control of our environment and able to do with it as we please,” says Martin. “With climate change, increased development, immense habitat loss, decreased diversity of species and all the other environmental issues we’re facing, it seems we’re at a significant turning point in human history. I think we’re at a time where we need to stop viewing everything solely through an external lens and, instead, turn inward.”

The film was completed before the forest plan was finalized. The final plan, a nearly 3,000-page document, was released in February. In July, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a notice of intent to sue the US Forest Service on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, MountainTrue, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society and Defenders of Wildlife. The suit holds that the new plan violates the Endangered Species Act.

Black Balsam Knob. Photo by Garrett Martin

Cabe says the EBCI are satisfied with the new plan and were never consulted about the lawsuit. “The lawsuit is really disappointing because it has the potential to conflict with agreements available to federally recognized tribes that the EBCI have in place with the USFS,” he says. “We have an inherent right to our ancestral homelands. Our ancestors shed blood on these lands long before colonialism. I wish people would step back and respect the fact that we are at the table now, which we haven’t been in more than 200 years.”

While the experts share their varying opinions, the river itself is its own character in the film, exuding nonchalance as it trickles over rocks and through quiet forest. “So many people care about these forests,” says Martin, “so it was tough to balance all the different opinions while still staying true to what the film was really about: our relationship to all lands, our connection to nature and how we fit into this place we call home.”

To learn more, visit

Stream THE RIVER RUNS ON on Amazon by clicking here.

Leave a Comment