Ken Burns is of course, a great documentary filmmaker, perhaps the greatest ever. (What other documentary filmmaker has an “effect” named after him?) But with “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” Burns is transcendent. It is not only a great, great documentary, it needs to be seen by every American. In Utah, where I live, there is a current furor over President Obama possibly declaring a new National Monument at Bear’s Ears. This is a situation where environmentalists want it, Native Americans want it, but the state government, certain locals and certain corporate interests are dead set against it, claiming it will cost jobs, damage the economy, violate state rights, impede needed development etc. How extraordinary to find that these same competing viewpoints have been going on for over 150 years ever since Abraham Lincoln set aside Yosemite as the Nation’s first protected area.
The 12-hour documentary has astounding footage of the parks and their fauna and flora. It has heroes and villains galore. I suppose what is truly astonishing is how the heroes, like John Muir, Charles Young, George Bird Grinnell, Stephen Mather, Harold Ickes, Stuart Yudall, Adolph Murie, and Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, could face down such powerful opposition and persevere. It is a good reminder to us to neither be shocked by greedy ignorance, nor to give up our efforts.
The documentary also brilliantly interweaves history and peoples’ stories as the Park system evolves. It covers almost 200 years of history, but if there is one take home point it is this: the National Parks remind us that we are Americans first, not Utahns, not Texans, not New Yorkers – we are Americans. This is OUR country and we must preserve it.
I have had a fortunate life. I have been to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and seen new land being created from molten lava. I have taken river trips through the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands, and Dinosaur National Monument. I have done extensive hiking from the rivers in those parks. I have seen the great redwoods and sequoias, I have seen the Tetons, and yet as I watched this documentary, I find myself wishing that I had spent more time when I was younger, truly immersing myself in as many parks as I could. Not driving through them, but walking, sitting, being. I can only wish that my children and grandchildren can experience this unique heritage that Ken Burns has shown us so beautifully.