By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
Midway into Ken Burns’ new ode to American history, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (starting on PBS Sept. 27), the filmmaker tells how the nation’s early park caretakers realize that wildlife is integral to preserving the parks.
You’d think this would have been obvious. But it came as an epiphany in the 1930s, decades into the development of the park system.
Oddly, until then, the public had been so busy ogling mountains and gaping at the exotic canyons of America’s national parks, that the animals seemed secondary, even incidental. Wildlife appearances were welcomed, of course. Bison wandering through a Rocky Mountain meadow enhanced the mountain vista beyond. Mountain sheep verified that one was high in the Rockies and the faithful appearance of the Yellowstone bears at the “bear dumps” or roadside feeding stops made an excursion to see Old Faithful complete.
Meanwhile, though, the wolves, bear, foxes, deer, elk and moose were still vigorously hunted, even on public lands. Government logging continued, degrading some of the very areas being preserved. And those Yellowstone bears were becoming a public menace, through no fault of their own, living on public handouts.
It took some new people in Washington to see what was wrong with this picture. One was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a champion of conservation who added national parks to the system nearly as fast as he added government programs to shore up the ailing 1930s economy.
Another key figure was George Melendez Wright, the first chief of the Wildlife Division at the National Park Service.
Wright saw what most others, at least those in the federal government, had failed to see: That leaving the wildlife alone to thrive in the parks without human interference would strengthen the ecosystems and assure the park’s sustainability.
He saw the nearly extinguished Trumpet Swans, for instance, not as potential hunting trophies, but as a species to cherish and be preserved in the wild. He understood the need for predators in the parks, and to balance the rampant recreational use of the parks to keep it in harmony with nature.
Tragically, this forward-thinking man, died in his early 30s in a car accident near Big Bend. But before he did, he pushed his philosophy forward enough that the parks were never viewed quite the same way again.
This is just one vignette in Burns’ monumental six-part, 12-hour series, which begins on PBS channels nationwide on Sept. 27 and will make Sunday evenings learning about National Parks the next best thing to going there. The film, five years in the making, is directed by Burns (who previously gave us the definitive epics, The Civil War, Jazz and Baseball) and written and co-produced by Dayton Duncan. Needless to say, the cinematography rocks (and not just the footage of the Rockies), and the collection of historic photos and clips presented is awesome. (Thank Burns and his chief cinematographer Buddy Squires.)
Burns excels at homing in on the poignant moments and historic pivots, and there are plenty here, as he and and Duncan tell the sweeping history of the parks through a series of smaller stories about the people who started them, shaped them, revered them and dwelt in them.
We hear about the odd, but visionary, John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, whose love of Yosemite Valley (“the grandest of all the temples of nature”) created the concept of national parks. Later, there’s Teddy Roosevelt, who vigorously promoted the idea of parks preserves but also hankered to nab a cougar whilst visiting Yellowstone.
“Roosevelt will always baffle people who don’t hunt, because he loved the animals and he loved to hunt,” notes one of the many historians and park rangers who narrate this documentary. (Park rangers who are eerily eloquent like Gerard Baker, a Native American ranger, Detroit-native Shelton Johnson, who missed his calling as a writer, and former Ranger Nevada Barr, who did become a writer.)
We learn how George Bird Grinnell, founder of the Audubon Society (and yes, that’s his real middle name), helped save the bison from extinction. And how onetime Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, described as “ruthless, unethical and highly effective” public leader abolished segregation in the National Parks and fended off special interests to create more protected spaces.
This hall of fascinating figures includes both the virtuous champions of the cause and those who undermined it. We meet defenders of rare birds and the nefarious absconder of ancient artifacts from Mesa Verde. The fun folks elevate the story so far above the “travelogue” that critics were worried would emerge, it doesn’t even bear fretting for one minute more about that.
Burns, master of his craft that he is, does not forget the common man/woman. Somehow, he has unearthed precious home memoirs of park aficionados dating back to the turn of the century. We follow one brave couple from Nebraska, Edward and Margaret Gerkie, as they tent alongside their car in various developing parks . We meet another man, a Japanese-born artist Chiura Obata whose spiritual connection to the “Holy Mountain,” Mount Rainier, leads to his life’s work painting scenes from the national parks. And naturally we meet Ansel Adams, photographer extraordinaire of the American West.
Just as the U.S. bureaucrats finally remembered to include wildlife in their plans for the nascent national parks, Burns remembers to put the people into his chronicle, turning what could have been a grand, but monotonous travelogue into a spirited exploration of our social and natural history, our culture and values.
But we would expect no less from our de facto national documentary filmmaker as he expounds on our nation’s presumed “best idea”.
About that claim, some will argue that America’s best idea was something else; something like, say, modern democracy (if you leave the ancient Greeks out of it) or representative government (skipping over the Iroquois here), or great TV sitcoms (a possible contender).
But Burns and team make a good case that the parks, set aside for all to enjoy, are uniquely American and embody our democratic spirit and more.
“The country (and therefore the parks) belong to the people. They are not for the rich alone,” says FDR, in a segment about how this nature-loving president, unable to hike or even walk far, greatly expanded the number of parks including some remote places.
Burns’ mega documentary, all 12 hours of it, is carefully organized, following the chronology of the parks from their inception in the 1800s, spurred by naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir, to about 1980 (a little disappointment there, given there are so many parallels with current park issues).
But his execution is multi-layered, creating a nuanced version of history with a panoply of interesting byways, detours and surprises.
He presents the parks as they were first viewed – as amazing spectacles that any American would be lucky to see and follows them though their various incarnations as vacation spots, points of education, and finally as core of our identity.
Our string of magnificent National Parks, concludes Sierra Club executive president Carl Pope, seems to suit a nation of immigrants, giving us places of peace and land that endures:
“They are the meaning of home for many of us.”
Copyright © 2009 Green Right Now | Distributed by Noofangle Media