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Oregon Field Guide to celebrate 25th season of documenting state's environment and scenic wonders

by: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Steve Amen has been host and executive producer of Oregon Field Guide for 24 years, about to start his 25th year.Even without the picture, you'd know it by the sound of the wind, and perhaps a bird call. Oregon Field Guide, the gold standard in TV nature porn, is celebrating the start of its 25th year on the air. The Oregon Public Broadcasting show feels like it has been everywhere, from Crack in the Ground to the snowy tip of Mount Hood.  

So what has changed here since the show began in 1988? 

"People are more aware of the impact on the land, whoever owns it or recreates on it," says Executive Producer and host Steve Amen, 63, who has been there from the start with videographer Todd Sonflieth. 

That includes ranchers and ATV riders too. The show has shown how most damage to ranches occurred in the 1800s, when the Bureau of Land Management was called the Grazing Commission. Amen is proud that his team has done a story on ATV riders who are fixing torn-up trails. 

"One section of our audience would assume no one does anything but walk in the woods, but that's just not what Oregon is all about. You have all these opportunities to enjoy the experience — with some recognition, 'Don't leave a footprint.'"

Amen has always told his staff, from nine to five they are environmental reporters, not environmentalists. 

While every story could have a green angle, Oregon Field Guide usually presents both sides of any controversy, leaving the viewers to make their minds up. 

"Even after five o'clock they're not to beat any drum publicly,” Amen says. “And that's opened a lot of doors for us. People will say 'We don't agree with you, but we'll talk to you.’ " 

And talk they do. They had magnetic logo signs made for the side of their SUVs while out in the field. "People were so friendly, they kept stopping us to talk. We couldn't get any work done! We took them off after a week and a half," Amen says with a shrug.

One thing that has stayed the same is Oregon's urban-rural divide. It's not just economic, it's cultural.

"The folks on the other side of the mountain have a feeling people here don't understand their culture." 

Amen recalls a 1980s Bill Moyers piece on Oregon where someone says to the camera, “I'm sick of people in their 50-by-100 lots telling me what to do with my 1,000 acres."

Memorable stories can come from anywhere, such as: 

• The Wagon Maker: Everett Mezentine, an 87-year-old farmer in Wamic who makes horse-drawn wagons from scratch.

• Ice Diving: Michael Bendixen waited four years for his chance to scuba dive under the ice of Lake of the Woods near Klamath Falls.  

• A natural spring in the Cascades: Amen calls it one of the most beautiful places he has ever been, a pure spring in the forest, not on any map or near a road. The tipster and his friends repeatedly tested Oregon Field Guide, calling the office to see if they would give out other locations they had said they would kept secret. After two years, he trusted them. 

The show never uses music from OPB’s record library, because it can make nature shows seem decorative, or influence feeling too much. It's been a bind, having to capture nature sounds and avoid aircraft noise. But it's good business: there are no royalties to pay. 

Not only is the show a cash cow for Oregon Public Broadcasting (pledgers love it, and other states, like Arizona, try to copy it), but it claims a role in making the identity of Northwesterners.

"We strike to the heart of what is the Northwest," producer Ed Jahn said at a recent celebration at the World Forestry Center. "People here have such an identity, and we nail it for them. Maybe they've been slogging away in the office all week, but then they see the show and say 'That's why I live here! When I get around to it, that's where I'll go next.’ " 

Jahn calls the ice caves story that will kick off the 25th season a once-in-a-lifetime story. He compares them to the Mt Rainier ice caves, which were a No. 1 attraction for Seattleites from the 1930s to 1950s but are now gone. 

Categorized as a news program, the show doesn't need costly permits from state agencies, but wilderness rules apply to everyone. Stories are often a producer and a shooter backpacking in with all the gear. The producer carries tripods and helps with sound. The cameraman (it's a dude-heavy team) races behind for panoramic shots and to the top of hills to capture others' glorious ascents. 

The show embraces new equipment. The show has a particular beneficiary, a retiree who buys them toys, such as an expensive six-prop "drone" with which to shoot aerial video. 

"For a dinosaur like me (the Internet) was a bit scary at first, but OPB has embraced new media unlike few stations out there,” Amen says. “Facebook has become a friend for us, and OPB Radio, they're tweeting, blogging and blipping..."

The coming 4K or Super High Definition video makes nature photography look fantastic. Is it coming to Oregon Field Guide?

"I know that won't be me," Amen says. "Let's face it, (normal) high def's not kind to me.”

While putting together the retrospective show, he says, “I just watched myself age 25 years. I want to say, throw a filter on that!"

 "This show has succeeded for a number of reasons, but the main one is Oregonians love Oregon. They can't get enough of it."

OPB will broadcast a special one-hour retrospective on Oregon Field Guide’s first 24 years on Thursday, Oct. 3, from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., and then kick off its 25th season with a special show about ice caves on Mount Hood, to be aired Thursday, Oct. 10, from 8:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.