“The National Parks”: Episode Two

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite National Park, 1903

By Jeff Pfeiffer

Ken Burns’ wonderful miniseries The National Parks: America’s Best Idea continues on PBS tonight with episode two: “The Last Refuge (1890-1915).”

John Muir, who figured so prominently in last night’s premiere episode, as he figured so prominently in America’s story of conservation, is back tonight. As the episode’s title implies, it focuses a lot on how, at the dawn of the 20th century, people began thinking differently about the parks and conservation in general thanks to people like Muir. This thought turns more toward how not only the land can be set aside, but also toward how the wildlife on that land can also be saved. It is reflected in the stirrings of the conservation movement, with organizations such as the Sierra Club, led by Muir; the Audobon society, led by George Bird Grinnell; and the Boone and Crockett Club, led by Theodore Roosevelt, being formed. It is also reflected in the fight to set aside the Everglades as a protected area, to help save the wide variety of birds that thrive there, but which are being decimated to accommodate the fashion trend of the time of having bird feathers adorn ladies’ hats.

This episode introduces a key figure in the conservation movement: the young president, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt is a paradoxical figure in the story of the parks. Although an avid hunter, he also sees the importance of setting aside land and protecting wildlife, if, for no other reason, so he would have some left to shoot. There are fascinating stories about Roosevelt in this episode, such as an extended look at his first foray into Yellowstone, and his meeting with John Muir, in which Roosevelt cut away from his presidential envoy and camped with Muir in Yosemite for a few days, during which the pair learn their similar attitudes toward the natural world, and discuss what other parks may be saved.

Roosevelt, upon learning that it’s in his power as president to simply declare something a National Monument, proceeds to name several. Making something a National Park, however, is a little more involved, and he is unsuccessful in his efforts to get the Grand Canyon, which he is amazed by — and which he implores the people of Arizona to “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it” — set aside as a National Park, with all the protections that would afford. It stays a Monument, but still faces danger from some who would turn it into the sort of commercial fiasco we saw Niagara Falls become in Episode One.

As Muir approaches the later stages of his life, he faces a crushing blow. Although the Yosemite high country, his inspiration, has been set aside as a National Park, he fails to save his beloved Hetch Hetchy valley in the area from being flooded by a dam built to provide water for the citizens of San Francisco. It’s a loss for Muir — and it is heartbreaking to hear his words on the subject — but will become an example and a rallying cry for conservationists going forward.


Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division