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America’s Best Idea

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

A six-part series from documentarian Ken Burns about the history of the national parks makes its way to PBS this fall. It’s not just about the magnificent places we visit; it’s a brilliantly told tale of the people who spent their lives creating and protecting these national treasures for all future generations.


Stuart Bourdon: In this new series will we see the emotional intensity of some of your previous work, such as in The Civil War. What sort of stories can we expect about the history of our national parks?


Ken Burns: The story of the national parks is so deeply emotional to many that Dayton Duncan (co-producer and writer for the series) and I were stunned by the response from some people about what the parks meant to them.


This is the story of ideas and individuals set against the backdrop of the most spectacular scenery on Earth. It’s a history. It’s not a travelogue, or a nature film, or a recommendation of which lodge or anything. It’s the story of the ideas and the individuals.


Some of them millions have heard of, Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir and John D. Rockefeller Jr., but most had never been heard of, or at least hadn’t been heard of when we began this project. Ordinary people, or so-called ordinary – Black, white, brown, yellow, red and beige, male and female, rich and poor, famous and unknown, from every region of the country and from overseas as well – who fell in love with some particular place and spent the rest of their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honors setting it aside.


What each of them had in common is a sense that these special places, which we have been able to save, could be not only refuges from the momentum of our lives, but reminders of a higher emotional being.


Even the historians and authors we interviewed to help us understand the subjects in our film also have that relationship with the parks. Those moments, the most amazing moments in their lives took place in a national park and as they relate them the emotion comes out. So the combination of the interaction between these historical stories and the people we’ve interviewed to tell those stories turns out to be a potent combination, every bit as emotional but in a different way as in The Civil War. If the two documentaries, The Civil War and THE WAR, were the emotion of law, heroism and catastrophe, these are the emotions of gaining something, of reconnecting with something authentic and that’s why the national parks are so important. That’s why our subtitle is America’s Best Idea. We stole that from Wallace Stegner, the writer who in his story said it’s the best idea we’ve ever had.


SB: Tell us about the scope of the production. How many years, places, people?


KB: We’ve been working on this for 10 years. We’ve been shooting for six. It’s in six parts, 12 hours total. After a 15-minute overture, an introduction that sets up the beauty of the spectacular places, we begin our hallmark historical storytelling in 1851 when the first white battalion of soldiers went into Yosemite Valley, intent on dislocating the Indians that lived there, and one of the soldiers noted that it was one of the most beautiful spots on Earth. It ends, essentially, before a hopefully as poetic and beautiful “outro,” with the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980.


We do go on to show other events, important events in the history of the parks, but we are historians and don’t like to taste too much of the modern history. But the bookends of our history begin in 1851 with the Mariposa Battalion going into Yosemite and ends with the spectacular doubling of the park system’s size with the edition of all the Alaska parks and wildernesses as a result of Carter signing ANILCA.


However, many of the issues we debate today, from the number of snowmobiles in Yellowstone to power plants adjacent to national parks to species diversification to habitat to increasing and adding parks, and the resistance among local and other groups that are opposed ideologically to the concept of parks, are issues that are seen in the history of our story.


John Muir, desperate to have visitors to the national parks, wasn’t quite sure whether the automobile, the horseless carriage as he referred to it, should mingle its gas breath with the cool air of the pines and the waterfalls. That’s history’s great gift. It permits us to discuss these things in a more dispassionate and reasoned manner.


SB: What did you discover or learn about the parks during the production of this documentary that you didn’t already know? What will we learn that may surprise us?


KB: We never make films about things that we know about. We make films about things we want to know more about, and I have spent most of my professional life out in the West and out in natural settings, but I was completely unprepared for what this project was going to deliver to us and I’m sure Dayton would say the same thing. The first thing is the idea of parks itself.


Most Americans think that the parks have always been there. They haven’t. Most people think the National Park Service has always been there. It hasn’t. In fact, it doesn’t show up until halfway through our third of six episodes. And most people think that the parks will always be there. But unless we’re vigilant and protect them, they won’t be.


You can lose a place and it’s lost forever. Once you save it, it requires constant vigilance to save that place, and I think I was unprepared for the way the story of the national parks and the evolution of the parks ideal evolved in much the same way as our larger American narrative, the political narrative of all men are created equal.


In fact, we’ve seen the national parks as the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape. And you could have knocked me over with a feather when we began to realize that. I mean, in the beginning we saved spectacular natural scenery. We saved obvious things like the grandest canyon on Earth, the tallest trees, highest waterfall and amazing geothermal features in Yellowstone, but then we expanded for historical and ethnographical reasons, for habitat and species diversification.


We set aside battlefields and historic homes and seashores and recreation behind the dams that were built just on the edge of the parks. We’ve even saved places of shame with the notion that a great country can learn from their mistakes. No other country on Earth does that.


A high school in Little Rock, still a working school, is a also a unit of the National Park Service. Manzanar, where Japanese Americans were interned during the Second World War in California is a National Park Service site, and so are slave cabins, and the site in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the heroic actions of the passengers of United 93 in 2001 took place, and so is the site in Oklahoma City and its 168 chairs.


It was the Buffalo Soldiers, the celebrated African-American cavalry soldiers, who were protecting Sequoia and Yosemite in a decade when more African-Americans were lynched than in any other decade of our history. That’s a story few have ever heard.


We are telling a history of the United States, and the heroes that saved these places are not just John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt. They are George Melendez Wright, a Hispanic biologist who turned the park service attention in the right direction in terms of how animals should be cared for in the park. They are George Masa, a Japanese immigrant whose photographs were instrumental in getting the Great Smoky Mountains set aside as a park. There are women involved, there are children, there are older people, there are poets, and the likes of Thomas Moran, William Henry Jackson, and Ansel Adams. There are democrats; there are republicans. There is an amazing array of people who have been instrumental in the story.


SB: Of all the parks that you visited, all the parks that you were involved with, did you end up having a favorite?


KB: Well you know it’s funny. Usually when people ask me what’s my favorite film, I say, “Do you have any kids? You know, which is your favorite kid?” If we’re good parents, we’re not supposed to have favorites. So it’s difficult to say which park or parks are my favorite.


In some ways my films, and by extension, the parks in the newest film are that way. We found that each park is special, but that some parks have created special intimate moments. That yes, they’re all beautiful, but it’s like baseball. In football, people will say “oh you know, I went to this game and Joe Montana threw a pass to Jerry Rice and we won,” or in basketball they say “he inbounded it to Michael Jordan with one second and he hit the three-pointer and we won,” but in baseball all stories begin with “my dad or my mom took me to the game.”


Parks are like that, too. It’s about whom you saw the park with. But if I had to pick, for me, it’s Yosemite and Shenandoah. Yosemite because it was the first major park I filmed for this project and the first time I had ever been to what is one of the most, if not the most, spectacular place on Earth, but it also reminded me that I had actually been to a natural national park before.


I thought I hadn’t. I thought I had only been to military parks, but in 1959 my dad took me, as a young boy of six years, to Shenandoah National Park. It was the first and only road trip we ever took together alone, and it was special. Because of the tragedy of my mother’s death that was about to befall our family, and other things, I had somehow forgotten about that trip. There in Yosemite, the first night of filming, I couldn’t sleep after an exhausting day of work. And I was thrilled to realize that I had something, a connection to the parks, nearly 50 years before that was so important to me.


SB: What do you think the parks really mean to Americans? And why should they be so important to us in the future?


KB: There is a momentum to our busy lives, but these parks and the act of camping help to at least arrest, or give pause to, our lives. Life will be there when we get back, but the kind of spectacular psychic or physical changes that take place when we camp in our national parks are so central to our being as Americans. You know, we don’t say “my country ’tis of thee” thinking of metropolitan output or skyscrapers, we think about the land and our experience with the land. That’s a huge, huge wonderful thing.


We are at an existential moment right now in our country’s history because the parks’ attendance was headed toward 300 million, and then it leveled off, and now it’s begun to dip in some places. It’s very simple – most people now live virtual lives. They spend their lives addicted to the cell phone, to their Blackberry, to the Internet and to video games. Existentialism is a tension between being and doing, and a virtual life is neither. It’s much harder to get families all together and get in the minivan and go do that thing we all did as kids – travel around to the parks and camp from one place to another.


I try to remind people that the virtual world will be there when they get back, but those parks won’t be there tomorrow, if we don’t enjoy them and advocate and argue for their continuance.


The National Parks – America’s Best Idea, is scheduled to debut on PBS September 27.


For more information, go to www.pbs.org/nationalparks.

Stuart Bourdon is the editor/associate publisher of Camping Life, which is Trailer Life‘s sister publication. Ken Burns, for more than 30 years, has directed and produced some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made, including The Civil War, The War and Baseball.

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