A new IMAX film will transport viewers into an important, if often overlooked, region of North America.

The Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation, with support from Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl and the Audubon Society, is producing “Wings Over Water.” Its focus: the prairie pothole region, which spans over 300,000 square miles in the center of the continent, and is home to millions of birds and other species.

Just this month, Minnesota’s Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council included money to improve duck habitat in Minnesota’s prairie potholes as part of its proposed legislation this session. The recommendations to protect and restore state resources total $137.5 million.

“The prairie potholes represent one of the most important ecosystems on planet Earth, yet few people even know of this landscape, much less its overall importance to our migratory birds, water and soil quality,” said Charlie Potter, the president and chief executive of the Illinois-based conservation group.

Hitting theaters next year, the film will be narrated by Academy Award-winning actor Michael Keaton and will address not only the importance of the prairie pothole region, but also the threat it faces from draining wetlands because of new farming practices.

Potter recently talked about the thinking behind the film and his expectations for its reception. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.

What is the foundation, and how does the film fit into your mission?

We’re the leading entity in the world working on economic and program efficiencies for conservation. We strive to take big conservation programs and figure out how they can be run better and bring private sector dollars to work with government programs in public-private partnership, which we do through the Center for Conservation Leadership. We are privately funded and nonpolitical.

We ask, where can we have the biggest impact? The North American Wetlands Conservation Act is the largest conservation program in existence, involving multiple countries, with over $3.5 billion spent in the last 25 years, and its sole goal is to ensure that we have sustainable waterfowl populations and a wetland base to support birds. And nobody knows about it. It’s not working. We’re losing about 2% of our prairies every year. We need to educate people, including the U.S. Congress and the parliament in Canada. So we went to IMAX, which is the pre-eminent venue for educating and inspiring. They are without a doubt the best vehicle to bring about the kind of impact that really moves the dial. If we succeed, we will greatly increase both public awareness and congressional involvement.

Why is prairie pothole region so important?

The prairies are the richest ecosystem on our continent, a gift left by the glaciers, stretching from Iowa, through western Minnesota and the Dakotas, into Canada. They are the North American equivalent of the Amazon in South America or the Serengeti in Africa. It’s grassland with millions of potholes that are mini-wetlands.

The prairie pothole region is the cradle of bird life in North America. Seventy to 80% of the birds on our continent rely on the prairie for some or all of their life cycle.

Why should people beyond hunters and birders care about this region?

The prairies are the beginnings of the aquifer that runs the length of the continent. It’s the watershed for everything west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies. The prairie wetlands are a sponge, absorbing snowmelt and rain. As we drain the prairies, we are sending water downstream faster — it’s not like there’s less water, we’re just moving it. The smaller the wetland, the more valuable. They warm faster in the spring, birthing invertebrates that birds need. Yet the small wetlands — 1 acre, ½ acre — are the most threatened. Millions of them have been drained into bigger wetlands, which is an ecological disaster.

If we continue to drain the prairies, we’re going to have absolutely horrific flooding. If you want to keep your basement dry, we need to stop draining the prairies.

Finally, wetlands sequester nitrogen and grasslands sequester carbon. We should be replanting the prairies in grass rather than tearing them up.

What can viewers expect?

It’s [an] emotional and visual experience, in 3-D. Sitting in the theater, you’re going to be in the midst of sandhill cranes, you’re going to be in the warbler’s nest, you’re going to be migrating with mallards, you’re going to be in the wetland with the bugs. You’re going to be immersed in a film that makes you realize just how incredibly rich this ecosystem is.

This is a film that tells the real story; we don’t hide anything. We are in control of our destiny. We can save the prairies if we want to.

This movie is going to awaken a country and a continent to save the prairies.


Tony Jones is a writer and theologian from Edina. Reach him at ReverendHunter.com.