The National Parks: America's Best Idea is a 12-hour, six-part documentary series directed by Burns and co-produced with his longtime colleague, Dayton Duncan, who also wrote the script. It is the story of an idea as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence and just as radical: that the most special places in the nation should be preserved, not for royalty or the rich, but for everyone. As such, it follows in the tradition of Burns’s exploration of other American inventions, such as baseball and jazz.
Filmed over the course of more than six years in some of nature’s most spectacular locales — from Acadia to Yosemite, Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon, the Everglades of Florida to the Gates of the Arctic in Alaska — the documentary is nonetheless a story of people from every conceivable background: rich and poor; famous and unknown; soldiers and scientists; natives and newcomers; idealists, artists and entrepreneurs; people who were willing to devote themselves to saving some precious portion of the land they loved, and in doing so, reminded their fellow citizens of the full meaning of democracy.
“Just as many of the lands that make up today’s national parks were the spiritual homes for the indigenous tribes who lived there, they had a profound and often spiritual impact on the settlers who first saw them and on the visionaries who fought tirelessly to preserve them as the common property of the American people,” says Burns. “They saw in them a visual, tangible representation of God’s majesty. Our film celebrates the beauty of these parks and the vision and foresight of the men and women who made sure that this land would be preserved.”
The narrative traces the birth of the national park idea in the mid-1800s and follows its evolution for nearly 150 years. Using archival photographs, first-person accounts of historical characters, personal memories and analysis from more than 40 interviews, and what Burns believes is the most stunning cinematography in Florentine Films’ history and the most contemporary footage of any Ken Burns film since Lewis and Clark, the series chronicles the steady addition of new parks through the stories of the people who helped create them and save them from destruction. It is simultaneously a biography of compelling characters and of the American landscape.
“Making this film was one of the greatest joys of my life,” says Dayton Duncan, who has visited all but one of America’s 58 national parks and who is the author of the companion book, published by Alfred Knopf. “Each park is unique and has its own fascinating historical story. But they are all connected by the transformative idea that they belong to each of us, providing a shared place that lives in the memory of every individual and every family that has visited them over the years. And they are connected by the notion that individual Americans, in the best possible example of democracy, worked to make sure that future generations could enjoy them.”
With 391 units (58 national parks, 333 national monuments, historic sites and other units), the National Park Service has a presence in 49 of the 50 states (Delaware is the sole exception). Like the idea of freedom itself, the national park idea has been constantly tested, is constantly evolving and is inherently full of contradictory tensions: between individual rights and the community, the local and the national; between preservation and exploitation, the sacred and the profitable; between one generation’s immediate desires and the next generation’s legacy.
Wallace Stegner calls the national parks “the best idea we ever had,” and no activity of the federal government engenders such universal support and public loyalty; yet the story of how these special places became preserved as parks, the role of individual citizens in creating them and the powerful stories of people’s emotional connection to them remains relatively unknown.
Among the lengthy cast of characters profiled in the series are James Mason Hutchings, a magazine publisher who was one of the first people to promote Yosemite and who sought to develop a resort hotel on the land; John Muir, a deeply religious mountain prophet who found inspiration in Yosemite and then inspired generations of parks enthusiasts; George Masa, a Japanese immigrant whose photographs of the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee served in the fight to protect the region as a national park; Chiura Obata, another Japanese immigrant, whose highly acclaimed paintings of Yosemite gave Americans a fresh perspective through which to see their beloved landmarks; Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who persuaded Congress that a swamp in southern Florida, the Everglades, should be set aside as a national park; George Melendez Wright, a park ranger from San Francisco who recognized the need to preserve the parks’ wildlife in its natural state; Adolph Murie, a young biologist and protégé of Wright who was instrumental in reforming park policy so that wildlife — even predators — would have the same protections as the land itself; and Stephen Mather, a wealthy businessman who used his personal fortune and genius for promotion to create a National Park Service.
These historical accounts are paralleled by contemporary stories of people who continue to be transformed and inspired by the parks today. They include Shelton Johnson, an African American who grew up in Detroit, where the national parks seemed distant, unreachable places until he later became a park ranger; Gerard Baker, a Native-American park superintendent whose tribe has long considered the land sacred; Tuan Luong, a Paris-born Vietnamese rock climber and photographer who fell in love with the parks and dedicated himself to photographing all 58 national parks with a large-format camera; and Juan Lujan, who grew up in west Texas during the Depression and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, with which he would help develop Big Bend National Park in Texas. Also included in the film are interviews with best-selling author Nevada Barr, a former park ranger; writer and environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams; historians William Cronon, Paul Schullery and Alfred Runte; and many others.