Ken Burns’ Saga on America’s National Parks Airing This Week

Posted By Mike Padgett

Sept. 26, 2009

PHOENIX, Ariz. – Where’s my backpack? A hike in our national forests is at the top of my list of things to do, and soon. I watched the Grand Canyon’s colors come alive during a brisk November sunrise, and I enjoyed hiking among the ancient redwood giants in the Muir Woods National Monument north of San Francisco.

Now, I would like a wintry encounter with a bison in Yellowstone National Park. I want to admire the massive animal in subzero weather and see its breath crystallize on its whiskers. I want to hike in Yosemite National Park in the fall.

I would like to visit Death Valley National Park in California (in December) and hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina.

We watched a preview of Ken Burns’ new 12-hour documentary series on America’s National Parks. It was broadcast live Sept. 23 from New York City’s Central Park to PBS stations in 50 cities.

Watching Burns’ preview reminded me of the healing powers of a walk through the woods, allowing nature’s wonders to erase mental stress.

The six-part saga, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” was more than six years in the making. The programs premiere Sept. 27 on PBS and run nightly through Oct. 2.

Burns, in his historical focus on our national parks, points out how Americans – from national figures and philanthropists, to local citizens and community groups – kept some of our nation’s most beautiful regions out of the hands of residential and commercial developers. Can you imagine McMansions on the rim of the Grand Canyon, gated communities in Yellowstone, or garish big-box stores in Zion National Park?

In his presentation, Burns introduced actor Lee Stetson, who read the words of John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and a man Stetson called “the poet and prophet of the American wilderness.”

Stetson said Muir, during his travels in the outdoors, “believed he was witnessing the work and presence of God, not the stern and wrathful God of his father, who placed Man above Nature, but a God who revealed Himself through Nature.”

Not everyone will enjoy the series, judging from a review in The New York Times. Viewers who want to see crowds probably won’t appreciate the 12-hour series because it has few people in it, according to the Times review. I know crowds pack the national parks. And why not? All Americans are co-owners of the parks. And crowds are why I avoid the parks during high-demand months. I prefer visits during off-peak times, when crowds are much smaller.

Burns later introduced park ranger Shelton Johnson. He grew up in inner-city Detroit. Johnson said one of his jobs in Yellowstone was delivering mail on a snowmobile. He described the awe he felt when he came upon several bison crossing a snow-covered road. He turned off his machine to savor the experience.

“And I was all alone but I felt I was in the presence of everything around me, and I was never alone,” Johnson said. “It was one of those moments when you get pulled outside of yourself into the environment around you.”

Johnson talked about President Theodore Roosevelt’s interest in the outdoors. He said Roosevelt, while he was president, once camped for three days with Muir in Yosemite.

At the Grand Canyon, Roosevelt was so moved by what he saw that he proposed it be made into a national park.

“When Congress at first refused to make it a national park, Roosevelt invoked his powers under the Antiquities Act and with a stroke of his pen, named it a national monument,” Johnson said.

He said that while Roosevelt was president, he created five new national parks, 51 federal sanctuaries, four national game refuges, 18 national monuments and more than 100 million acres of national forests.

“For Roosevelt, national parks represented America and American democracy at its best,” Johnson said.

Burns also introduced Dayton Duncan, the co-producer of the series, its author and the source of the idea for the PBS series.

“The real story of the National Parks is more than the story’s spectacular landscapes and wild nature,” Duncan said. “It is a story of the people who fell in love with those places and then decided that everyone else, people they would never know and never meet, should have the same chance to have the same transcendent experience. So they dedicated themselves to the place that they loved as a national park.

“They are American heroes. Some of them, like John Muir, were famous and used their fame to draw attention to their cause. Some like Theodore Roosevelt were politically powerful, and used that power for the common good.

“Some were wealthy philanthropists like John D. Rockefeller Jr., who devoted part of his fortune to buying land and then giving it away to the people of the United States to become Acadia National Park in Maine and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming,” Duncan said.

Others devoted to saving rare lands for permanent enjoyment were local residents and groups. “Virginia McClurg and Lucy Peabody and their women’s clubs in Colorado saved the ancient cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde. Lloyd Miller and Juanita Greene and Lancelot Jones, whose father had risen up from slavery, were instrumental in preserving the last pristine islands of southern Florida as Biscayne National Park,” Duncan said.

Burns introduced Gerard Baker, a Native American who has been with the National Park Service for more than 30 years. Today, Baker is the first Native American Superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota.

“America’s story is everyone’s story, from the stories of the first people who inhabited the country from time immemorial, to the stories of those who came to a new land seeking a new home,” Baker said.

“The history of the United States has many faces and many perspectives, and it does not belong to one group or one gender or one race,” Baker said. “It belongs to everyone.”

Burns returned to the stage for his final comments, after a preview that lasted more than an hour.

“In America,” he said, “the most beautiful and sacred places in the land should be preserved, not for royalty or the rich, not for one group of people or another. In America, the national parks are for everyone. That is America’s best idea.”

Between the commentaries by his guests, Burns introduced several singers. They included Gavin DeGraw; Alison Kraus and Union Station; Eric Benet; Carole King; and Jose Feliciano.

The final song, “This Land is Your Land,” was performed by Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey, of Peter, Paul and Mary. Mary Travers died Sept. 16. She was 72.

Educators are encouraged to visit the PBS Web site,, and study the lesson plans. Although the activities are designed for grades seven through 10, they could be adapted to other age groups. Go to the Web site and click on “Educators.”

(To avoid missing news, features and photos on, sign up for convenient email alerts in the FeedBurner box in the right rail. Your email address will not be used for any other purpose.)

(Photographs are copyrighted and may not be used without written permission.)

(Comments from readers are moderated and will not appear until the administrator has approved them.)

(Ideas for interesting news stories about Arizona residents and businesses are welcome. Please send ideas and suggestions to

Sep 26th, 2009

Comments are closed.