Ken Burns’ Walk Through The “Parks”

Arches National Park in Utah

I just had a chance to screen an hourlong preview of Ken Burns’ next project following his amazing film The War from a few years back.

Premiering Sept. 27 on PBS, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea continues Burns’ obvious fascination with American history, and both the everyday and well-known people who lived through it, but also adds splashes of a larger, colorful canvas to the intimate archival photos and film footage he has been so masterful at presenting in the past. It’s the story of the history of America’s national parks — which the film describes as an idea “as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence, and just as radical.”

But this does not turn into a simple nature documentary or travelogue. Bringing to life the already spectacular images of America’s 58 National Parks and their wildlife are the equally incredible stories of the people who helped create, maintain and carry on this American tradition of making such open spaces available to all Americans, not just the wealthy.

Of course there is a part devoted to Teddy Roosevelt, a well-known and key supporter of the Parks and of conservation in general, including a wonderful story of his trip into the wilds of Yellowstone unaccompanied by Secret Service and reporters, as giddy as a schoolboy at the nature he discovered (and managing not to shoot any of it). And there is a great look at the impact of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which helped put thousands of young men to work during the Depression while at the same time bolstering the parks through the building of thousands of miles of roads, the planting of billions of trees and more.

But there are also the little-known (at least to me) stories of average folks like Margaret and Edward Gehrke, who spent about 25 years (1915-39) traveling thousands of miles (in some Buicks that look pretty fragile against the rough terrain they encounter) to visit nearly all of the existing national parks of the time. Edward took photos while Margaret jotted down their awestruck impressions and descriptions of their treks, and some of both are featured in the film.

Particularly interesting is the look at George Melendez Wright, who was born into a wealthy family and who displayed an early interest in the natural world, eventually receiving a degree in zoology and forestry. While working on the bottom rung of the employment chain in Yosemite National Park, Wright proposed a radical idea — taking a survey of the wildlife in the parks so as to get back to an ideal of keeping the creatures in their natural habitats (at the time, practices included showing the animals off as in a zoo, such as by feeding bears at dumps). Wright’s landmark survey took four years, and was funded by himself. The results led to the park service deciding to just let nature take its course in the parks, and to a promotion of Wright to the first chief of the new Wildlife Division, at the age of 29.

Eagle Rock in Yosemite National Park, circa 1902

As he has done before in tackling subjects that have shaped America, from baseball and jazz to the Civil War and World War II, Burns is less interested here in presenting the dry facts about these events than in using them — and the touching, dramatic and sometimes funny stories of those of the period — as stepping stones to address topics that have been with the country throughout its history. And the story of the national parks touches upon several themes that resonate in America yet today, from race and gender to politics and the conflict between civilization, exploitation and the natural world. Burns has had a knack for mining intimate, unknown stories out of events that one would think had already been covered to death, and continues that here.

The six-part, 12-hour film The National Parks: America’s Best Idea will air each night Sept. 27-Oct. 2 on PBS, and will be available in high definition. It looks like it’s another great idea from Ken Burns, and could be one of his most visually stunning films.


Arches — Credit: Craig Mellish

Eagle Rock — Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division