National Parks: America's Best Idea


Updated Fri, Aug 16, 2013 3:14 pm

The National Parks: America's Best Idea is the story of an idea as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence and just as radical: that the most special places in the nation should be preserved, not for royalty or the rich, but for everyone. As such, it follows in the tradition of Burns's exploration of other American inventions, such as baseball and jazz.

The narrative traces the birth of the national park idea in the mid-1800s and follows its evolution for nearly 150 years. Using archival photographs, first-person accounts of historical characters, personal memories and analysis from more than 40 interviews, and what Burns believes is the most stunning cinematography in Florentine Films' history, the series chronicles the steady addition of new parks through the stories of the people who helped create them and save them from destruction. It is simultaneously a biography of compelling characters and a biography of the American landscape.

With 391 units (58 national parks, plus 333 national monuments and historic sites), the National Park Service has a presence in 49 of the 50 states (Delaware is the sole exception). Like the idea of freedom itself, the national park idea has been constantly tested, is constantly evolving and is inherently full of contradictory tensions: between individual rights and the community, the local and the national; between preservation and exploitation, the sacred and the profitable; between one generation's immediate desires and the next generation's legacy.

As America expanded westward, pioneers would "discover" landscapes of such breathtaking and unusual beauty that written descriptions of the lands were sometimes assumed by people in the East to be works of fiction. Eventually, there emerged a belief that these special places should be kept untarnished by development and commerce so that they could be experienced by all people.

Wallace Stegner called the national parks "the best idea we ever had," and no activity of the federal government engenders such universal support and public loyalty; yet the story of how these special places became preserved as parks, the role of individual citizens in creating them, and the powerful stories of people's emotional connection to them remain relatively unknown.

Among the lengthy cast of characters profiled in the series is James Mason Hutchings, a magazine publisher who was one of the first people to promote Yosemite and who sought to develop a resort hotel on the land; John Muir, a deeply religious mountain prophet who found inspiration in Yosemite and then inspired generations of parks enthusiasts; George Masa, a Japanese immigrant whose photographs of the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee served in the fight to protect the region as a national park; Chiura Obata, another Japanese immigrant, whose highly-acclaimed paintings of Yosemite gave Americans a fresh perspective through which to see their beloved landmarks; Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who persuaded Congress that a swamp in southern Florida, the Everglades, should be set aside as a national park; George Melendez Wright, a park ranger from San Francisco who recognized the need to preserve the parks' wildlife in its natural state; Adolph Murie, a young biologist and protégé of Wright who was instrumental in reforming park policy so that wildlife – even predators – would have the same protections as the land itself; and Stephen Mather, a wealthy businessman who used his personal fortune and genius for promotion to create a National Park Service.

These historical accounts are paralleled with contemporary stories of people who continue to be transformed and inspired by the parks today. They include Shelton Johnson, an African American who grew up in Detroit, where the national parks seemed distant, unreachable places until he later became a park ranger; Gerard Baker, a Native-American park superintendent whose tribe has long considered the land sacred; Tuan Luong, a Paris-born Vietnamese rock climber and photographer who fell in love with the parks and dedicated himself to photographing all 58 national parks with a large format camera; and Juan Lujan, who grew up in west Texas during the Depression and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, with which he would help develop Big Bend National Park in Texas. Also included in the film are interviews with best-selling author Nevada Barr, a former park ranger; writer and environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams; historians William Cronon, Paul Schullery and Alfred Runte; and many others.

Nearly a decade in the making, The National Parks: America's Best Idea is a visual feast, featuring some of the most extensive, breathtaking images of the national parks system every captured on film. It contains the most contemporary footage of any Ken Burns film since Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, shot principally by chief cinematographer Buddy Squires (who has filmed all of Burns's documentaries), long-time Florentine cameraman Allen Moore, Lincoln Else (who also is a former ranger at Yosemite) and Burns himself.

As with all of Burns's films, there is an extensive educational component, an interactive web site that provides more information about the film, the parks and related issues, as well as a large-scale community engagement initiative. Years ago, WETA and Florentine Films, with generous support from the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, launched the Untold Stories project, designed to bring to light stories from the national parks focusing on the role of African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans in the creation and protection of individual parks and to engage new and traditionally underserved audiences in the educational richness of the national parks.

Accompanying the series is a companion book, written by Dayton Duncan, and introduced by Ken Burns, which has been published by Alfred A. Knopf, Ken Burns's long-time publisher. PBS Home Video has produced a complete DVD box set featuring "making of" footage and an interview with Burns and others involved in the film.

In addition to Peter Coyote's narration, The National Parks: America's Best Idea features first-person voices read by some of America's greatest actors. Tom Hanks reads the voices of several characters in the film, including Congressman John F. Lacey, who helped push a bill through Congress to protect Yellowstone's last wild buffalo herd. Other voices include Andy Garcia, Josh Lucas, Eli Wallach, Campbell Scott, Sam Waterston, John Lithgow, George Takei, Philip Bosco, Carolyn McCormick, Adam Arkin and Kevin Conway.

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