The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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March 2, 2013

'Three Rivers' documentary to premiere on PBS

FAYETTEVILLE — This weekend, follow the rivers as history, community and biology come together in a new film from West Virginia Public Broadcasting.  

“Three Rivers: The Bluestone, Gauley and New,” which premieres Sunday on WV PBS, is part travelogue, part environmental piece and part historical documentary.

“You can’t ultimately separate them,” says the film’s producer, Russ Barbour.

Take a journey down the Gauley River, for instance, and you’ll float by Carnifex Ferry, where a pivotal battle for West Virginia statehood unfolded. You may see signs of the timber industry, which was once responsible for industrial pollution that gave it the nickname River of Ink. Now, the river looks pristine and plays host to paddlers from all over the world who come to ride its famous whitewater.

“What’s really at the center of ‘Three Rivers’ is the relationship between these rivers, the land through which they flow and the beings that have been found there — whether human, plants or animals,” says Barbour.

“And so now the question is, what is our next step in that relationship? What will we do to make the best of it and savor what we have?”

The film features interviews with Jonathan Berkey, associate professor of history at Concord University; historical geographer Mack Gillenwater; naturalist Jim Phillips; Congressman Nick Rahall; New River Gorge Peregrine Restoration Project coordinator Wendy Perrone and many others.

When Ken Burns produced a series on the national parks, PBS had slots available for local affiliates to tell their own tales about their federally protected areas.

So Barbour set out on a six-month stint filming the rivers that star in the New River Gorge National River, Bluestone National Scenic River and Gauley River National Recreation Area.

When all was said and done, he had way more material than could be used in the two half-hour programs he produced that focused on the New River, called “Upheaval: The Story of the New River Gorge.”

“We hadn’t really even touch-ed on the Gauley and the Bluestone. So we set out to finish it,” he says.

“Three Rivers” goes back and looks at various elements of the New, including a visit to North Carolina where the river begins, but focuses on the Gauley and Bluestone, as well. The latter is the lesser-known of the three.

“So I wanted to expose the mystery and delve into what makes the Bluestone unique from the other two,” he says. “It gives us the opportunity to give attention to the settlement of that region, following the Lilly family.”

The film explores the early settlers’ religious belief systems and looks at the community of Lilly, which, when the Army Corps of Engineers began building Bluestone Dam, was vacated in anticipation of flooding.

It also explores trout fishing in the Bluestone, with a focus on Pipestem Resort State Park. Barbour followed a horseback fly fishing expedition, capturing a beautiful shot of the animals walking along the river.

The film opens with a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt: “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources, but the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

Barbour says that while he didn’t set out to create a film with an environmental message, it was ultimately unavoidable. Whether from mountaintop removal, the impact of building a dam or invasive species, the landscape.

“It’s also the message of the National Parks Service, that we need to preserve these lands and river. I couldn’t help but see that in action,” says the filmmaker.

“The message, really, is there are these astounding places and whatever it is we choose to do is going to affect those places. ... It’s not a negative thing. It’s very positive.”

At a preview showing of the film Wednesday at Concord University, Barbour said many older people in the audience were quite surprised about the history of the area, despite the fact they had grown up there.

“I think for people living here, you get used to it and there are things you never think about. But seeing how the history and geology and geography and biology are all interrelated, you realize what a special place you live in,” says Barbour. “It’s really quite unique and it’s beautiful.”

Barbour, who has worked for West Virginia Public Broadcasting for more than 30 years, says his proudest moment came when the audience at Concord connected with the film on a personal level. A stimulating conversation among audience members followed the screening.

“So far, they feel better about themselves and their heritage, which is these places. Where we live and where we’re from is a reflection of who we are,” Barbour said. “I feel good about being part of singing the praises of this place.”

“Three Rivers: The Bluestone, Gauley and New” premieres at 8 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Sunday on WV PBS. It was produced with the assistance of the National Park Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture.

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