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GreenTreks: Going Where No Network Has Gone Before: Environmental Programming

By Ron Sutton

From the GreenTreks production 'Acting Locally—Protecting Our Waterways.' Courtesy of GreenTreks Network, Inc.

"Telling Stories that change the world," emphatically defines the mission of GreenTreks Network, Inc. In partnership with KRCB Television 22 in Rohnert Park, California. GreenTreks sponsored the 2004 PBS series Natural Heroes. The series won a platinum Telly Award in the Film/Video category of Nature/Wildlife.

A second Natural Heroes series is being developed for 2006. The series consists of 13 episodes, each 30 minutes in length, telling stories about people doing something to help the environment and thereby change the world.

KRCB and GreenTreks are fielding entries for next season, and will evaluate, select and package the films for broadcast. These works must be created by independent producers and will be evaluated for their potential impact on a nnational television audience.

No entry fee is required for submission, and beyond exposure, there is no payment or material gain to the filmmaker for the work submitted. According to Barry Lewis, program director for GreenTreks Network, Inc., it is hoped that by the third edition of Natural Heroes, enough underwriting will be secured to pay filmmakers for their work.

The rights provided to the stations are the public television standard: four showings in three years. Maria Erades, executive producer of the series, and an independent filmmaker herself, emphasizes that the rights granted are non-exclusive; filmmakers may continue to show their films as they wish.

From the GreenTreks production <em>Acting Locally — Protecting Our Waterways</em>. Courtesy of GreenTreks Network, Inc.

A cryptic phrase on the entry form states, "Within the Public Television Guidelines, offers may be made for after-market materials (videos, etc.) and websites." Lewis explains that this refers to the standard public television allowance involving the listing of a website that would include information about sales and provide links and additional information about the filmmaker and his or her additional work.

GreenTreks Network, Inc. and KCRB, along with series underwriter General Hydroponics and The Campbell Foundation, funded the initial year of the series. The launch date for the second edition of Natural Heroes will be during Earth Month in 2006. Filmmakers will be notified of their selection through the fall of 2005; however, both Lewis and Erades invite filmmakers with appropriate works that "encourage thoughtful questions and realistic answers" to contact them even after this fall, as the packaging of the series is flexible.

Billed as "the first nationally distributed series of its kind," Natural Heroes was made available to PBS stations in June 2004. Approximately 50 to 60 affiliates ran the series, and more are expected to carry the second edition. The programs shared a common thememaking a difference in the environment.

Last year's offerings included:

  • Transportation Solutions (Judith Vogelsong, Howard J. Donner, dirs.; GreenTreks Network, prod.), which comprises three short films: one about a far-fetched but winsome project involving the production of gas "greasoline," from spent, fast-food cooking oil; one about a mother buying a hybrid Toyota Prius to show her son she is doing her part for fuel conservation; and the third about two young men who form an anti-SUV bumper sticker brigade in an attempt to engage the owners in a dialogue about how their vehicle choice is changing the climate.
  • Solar Decathlon (GreenTreks Network, prod.), a story of university students from around the country designing and building solar houses on the mall in Washington, DC.
  • Trash Is a Failure of Imagination (GreenTreks Network, prod.), a whimsical but serious piece that dramatizes the old chestnut, "One person's trash is another person's treasure."
  • The Last Stand: Heroes at the Ballona Wetlands (Sheila Laffey, prod./dir.; Todd Brunette, dir.)Focusing on the largest natural wetlands remaining in Southern California , this film uses excerpts from previous works shot in 1998 and 2000 to document a titanic struggle in which quite a few famous folks (Ed Asner, Martin Sheen, Ed Begley, Esai Morales, Tom Hayden, Barbara Boxer) and lots of ordinary citizens perform as "natural heroes." The cumulative effect of producer/director Sheila Laffey following a single issue over six years had a powerful and positive impact.

The backstory on GreenTreks Network, Inc. is quite fascinating. It begins in 1991 with the Environmental Fund for Pennsylvania (EFP). The fund had 17 environmental groups as members and felt strongly that they should be included in SECA, the State Employees Combined Appeal. They were rebuffed by then Governor Tom Ridge and associates, who stated that the member groups did not contribute to the health and welfare issues supported by SECA.

EFP hired Tim Schlitzer as its executive director in 1993. He set out to change official minds by tracking down ordinary persons in Pennsylvania who were doing extraordinary things to aid the environment. He photographed them and wrote down their stories and sent a different story to Governor Ridge every day for a month. Schlitzer haunted the halls of the legislature in Harrisburg , talking to anyone who would listen to his stories about his heroes. Within a year the EFP was given the right to receive SECA funds.

Schlitzer shared his stories with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which liked his positive approach and gave him funds to purchase a video camera. He put the stories on tape, and in September 1997, he launched a cable access TV program, GreenWorks for Pennsylvania, that eventually ran on 80 stations.

In 2000 GreenWorks for Pennsylvania won a Middle Atlantic Regional Emmy for Outstanding Public Information Series. Schlitzer was inspired to produce the film Farming on the Edge, which screened at the 2000 Philadelphia Film Festival and later aired on all seven public television stations in Pennsylvania.

EFP set up the GreenWorks Channel website in 1998 (; later, and received 380,000 visitors that year. Since then the number of visitors has jumped to 1.5 million per year. The site also won the Council of State Governments' award for the most innovative program in America among those receiving state-funded grants.

As more films were being made for the series, the GreenWorks Media Center was created for in-house production purposes. Soon other environmental groups turned to GreenWorks for help in design, production and packaging of both videos and websites.

The final metamorphosis occurred in January 2004, when, after two years of planning, EFP/GreenWorks split into two organizations. EFP became a totally separate entity, committed to its primary task of raising money for its member groups, and GreenWorks was reborn as GreenTreks Network, Inc.

Continuing to use a positive, story-based approach, GreenTreks sees its mission as "the promotion of the vision of sustainability that makes the health of the environment an intrinsic part of everyday life." The organization stresses balance in its storytelling between "tension" and "release" and believes that if there is too much "tension" viewers are made to feel hopeless and thus powerless. If there is too much "release," the problem at hand may be viewed as "fluff" and the motivation for action would thus be undercut because everything would seem to be under control.

In late 2004, Schlitzer stepped down from the day-to-day operations of GreenTreks, though he retains a position on the board. Erades replaced him as executive director/CEO and continues in her role as the group's executive producer and major in-house filmmaker responsible for hiring other filmmakers for GreenTreks or cooperative projects.

In addition to co-producing the Natural Heroes series with KRCB and producing its own documentaries and multi-media projects, GreenTreks maintains a resource-rich website,, provides services in video production and website design and creates education programs in conjunction with its many activities.


Ron Sutton is Professor Emeritus in the Visual Media Department of the School of Communication at American University.