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The National Parks: America’s Best Idea

PBS, 2009, six disks, 720 mins., $99.99.

 Ken Burns’ latest PBS series focuses on the legacy of America’s national parks, a unique concept at the time of their genesis in the 19th-century West. No other country had set aside land for public enjoyment. It was a truly American idea and remains very much living history. That immediacy is the cornerstone of the series. Burns by necessity resorts to his trademark slow pans of historical photographs, paintings and the like, but the novelty of that technique has worn thin. Here, however, he layers historical images between truly spectacular modern footage of nature’s wonders that will touch even the most jaded parkgoer.

Here in all their splendor are the grand Western tracts—Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, the North Cascades, Grand Teton, etc.—that form the heart of today’s National Park System. Burns profiles the iconic American figures (Abraham Lincoln, John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, et al.) and dozens of lesser-known but equally passionate conservationists who safeguarded these lands. Here, too, is a 129-year sweep of park history (1851–1980) inseparably tied to our greater American story. Only in his epic 1996 series The West did Burns take on as broad a time period. In pure cinematographic terms, this is his best outing to date.

In spots the series bogs down in heavy-handed environmental moralizing. In one example, the writers justly criticize the unchecked slaughter of wolves within Western park boundaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But they paint blame in broad brushstrokes. Series writer Duncan Dayton goes so far as to dub wolves “the resistance movement to everything we represent.” Park Service biologist Adolph Murie, who in the 1940s studied wolves at Alaska’s Mount McKinley National Park (today’s Denali), was even less charitable in his appraisal of man’s place, if any, in nature. “Let there be a few outstanding scenes which can be viewed without the attendant chatter of the idly curious,” he wrote of his desire to check park visitation.

Only, of course, there is no monolithic “we” in the ongoing story of the national parks, and those “idly curious” are the ones for whom the parks were set aside and who remain their primary benefactors. As the legend on Yellowstone’s northern gate reads: FOR THE BENEFIT AND ENJOYMENT OF THE PEOPLE. Anyway, for those of us blessed to have visited the core parks in the system, Burns’ finger-wagging comes across as so much preaching to the choir. Despite past sins, Americans have long been united in their love of national parks. Debate centers on the best way to balance preservation and use.

Burns cites the ongoing battle over Alaskan land rights as a textbook example. In 1978, on the heels of an antidevelopment campaign by the Alaska Coalition—an environmental lobby representing 10 million members, “most of whom had never set foot in Alaska”— President Jimmy Carter set aside 56 million acres of that state’s wilderness as national monuments. The environmental lobby was thrilled, but Alaskans themselves were largely outraged by the set-aside, which they denounced as a federal land grab that abrogated their sovereign state’s rights. The same forces remain in contention today over drilling rights on the North Slope. Utahans are waging a similar battle over mineral rights in their state.

And so the debate should continue, as new generations discover our national parks for themselves and decide where to draw the line between use and abuse. Toward that end, Burns’ latest offering is a beautifully filmed and informative, if emotionally slanted, primer.


Originally published in the December 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.