How radical is the idea of national parks? Dayton Duncan, Ken Burn’s partner in the National Park series, opens the series stating that entering one of these natural spaces crosses a boundary where human individuals are not the masters. Yet we as a society DO control the existence, present and future, of the spaces themselves. Their existence depends on democracy, while typifying the best element of democracy – universal access to high aspirations. The PBS series initially focuses on John Muir’s highly spiritual perspective on the value of experiencing nature, and the contemporary writers who talk in the film extoll the very long term value of saving these spaces, whether humans ever visited them or not – just for the sake of their existence. Yet the Burns series, in segment 3, “Empire of Grandeur,” portrays the eventual development and permanent protection of the parks as an evolving response to economic forces, development and use trends, and patriotic fervor expressed by some of the richest folks in the land.
John Muir died in 1914 knowing he had failed in protecting his very favorite nature spot, Hetch Hetchy Valley. Part of Yosemite National Park, it was flooded by the creation of a reservoir in 1913. This loss, still controversial, is portrayed in the Burns film as a trigger or rallying point which instigated and motivated much support for the parks and the emerging Park Service, which would provide organized regulation and protection of park lands and wildlife – wildlife being an afterthought in some roots of national parks thinking. Muir inspired a strong and still-present reverential perspective on the natural landscape, but the national parks themselves were captured and developed by a very different mode of operation.
Stephen Mather was the first of many very rich men to support the National Park System, and perhaps the most devoted to its cause. His vision, implemented through years of quasi-volunteer government service with crucial assistance from Horace Albright, saw economics and patriotism as the twin keys to developing the national parks. “Popularize to Protect” was the slogan of his very successful PR campaign to promote the parks. If enough people visited them and enough philanthropists claimed them as causes, they would be safe. Mather rescued the parks from a variety of unsavory commercial interests and activities, but also allowed railroad interests to pursue park politics, Native Americans to be marginalized, and a group of populist patricians to dominate the selection of park sites.
No one can argue with the success of the national parks, nor their importance, nor the profound satisfaction we as Americans can take in their existence and permanent status. The paradox clearly stated by Dayton Duncan, who wrote the film, is in the tension between the enjoyment of them by The People and the unimpaired future existence of the natural features. Duncan compares the broad parameters of the National Park charter to the Constitution, in that both allow for “movement into the future.” We’ve evolved from “white men with property” to (almost)everybody, and so our view of national parks can perhaps transcend Major Tourist Site.
The are glimmers of such vision embedded in the film. Dayton Duncan gets a little teary describing his reaction, as an Iowan, to seeing new land on Earth created in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. ( Mark Twain jump-started his journalism career as one of the first visitors to Kilawea). The spirituality of Muir endures well beyond the earnest pieties of the Serria Club. Enos Mills and the Rockies, Charles Shelton and Alaska – the list of inspiring heroes and their meccas will continue throughout the massive film. But if there is a truly radicalizing element in it, it is the off chance that watching it will provoke one to go experience one of these places. One of the best reviews points out that many Californians could actually travel to one of several national parks in the time they spent watching the Burns film. I hope you get out and find your special nature spot soon. Take your time, and let the planet speak to you. The message might be life-changing.
(selected footage from many parts of the project)