Where can you find trees that existed before the Egyptians built the first pyramids, rocks that are more than 1.7 billion years old, the world’s greatest collection of geysers and more, all in 84 million acres of breathtaking scenery? Right here, in our national parks — that “treasure house of nature’s superlatives,” which belongs not to rich aristocrats or high-ranking government officials, but to you and every other American citizen.
To honor these national nature treasures and the history of our parks, PBS and renowned filmmaker Ken Burns spent six years creating The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, a six-part series that premiers Sunday, Sept. 27.
The series is packed with interesting history, inspiring personal stories and — it can’t be emphasized enough — awe-inspiring footage of the most beautiful places in the United States. We’ve watched all six episodes and have written short synopses of each to give you a taste of what you’ll see. It’s rough work, we know, but that’s what we’ll do for our readers. In all seriousness, though, this series is stunning; we guarantee it’ll stir your soul. So set your DVR or VCR; schedule some family time to watch it; save those errands for another week — whatever you’ve got to do, don’t miss this.
In the first episode of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, we witness the birth of our national parks system. A few notable points:
As of 1890, the United States has successfully set aside four national parks: Yellowstone, Yosemite, General Grant and Sequoia. But there’s no time to celebrate, as a new challenge presents itself — in the struggle to preserve the integrity of our new parks from commercialization, and destruction by poachers, loggers and scavengers.
— Alison Rogers
Despite valiant efforts from the U.S. Army and park proponents, our newly declared reserves and the wildlife within them were in danger of exploitation by a public who didn’t fully understand their significance, and by often ruthless opportunists who sought to capitalize on these unprotected treasures.
The second installment of this series ends with the passing of John Muir, a bittersweet close to a program filled with beautiful stories and images of the ruins of Mesa Verde, the Florida Everglades, Mount Rainier, Muir Woods, the Grand Canyon and many more spectacular destinations.
— Alison Rogers
The third episode of the series sees a passionate push to achieve National Park status for more U.S. wilderness areas, ultimately met with great success following years of relentless effort and brilliant strategy on the part of a few dedicated champions, as well as the common citizens of the nation as a whole.
— Aubrey Vaughn
The fourth episode witnesses an explosion of traffic to the parks, surpassing 1 million annually, as the availability of the automobile to the masses makes visiting the parks the ultimate democratic and democratizing experience. Plus, the nation begins to look beyond its West coast (and the small northeast corner that is Acadia) to discover and appreciate its natural treasures. The environmental movement continues to grow and evolve, while would-be developers up the ante in their efforts to prevent increased preservation efforts. That’s not all ...
— Aubrey Vaughn
In the fifth installment of the series, you’ll witness the evolution of the national parks — from places to enjoy nature as a spectacle, to holistic refuges for all flora and fauna within their borders, to the sanctuaries of American history and character. You’ll also learn how the parks helped sustain the United States through some of its most challenging times.
Here are some of the many landmark developments chronicled in this episode:
— John Rockhold
As America emerged from World War II and entered the Baby Boom era, the national parks enjoyed a surge in visitors. In Yellowstone alone, attendance quadrupled in 1946. Two years later, the park would see more than 1 million visitors. Similar enthusiasm was experienced at parks across the United States.
While the national parks’ caretakers worked to accommodate this rapidly rising popularity without having received increases in staffing or budgets since the Great Depression, two even larger issues loomed: the tug of war between conservation and development, and the paradoxical conundrum that occurred as more and more visitors put such pressure on the parks that they were in danger of being loved to death.
Episode six begins with the story of Adolph Murie, the iconoclast biologist who laid the groundwork of Mt. McKinley National Park (later renamed Denali National Park). Already unpopular with the hunting lobby — and even some of his superiors at the park service — for his support for the protection of predators, Murie conducted the first in-depth scientific study of wolves. Rather than proving the status quo idea that wolves hunt elk, caribou and other prey so much so that they diminish opportunities for human hunters, Murie concluded that wolves actually strengthen the herds of their prey by culling out the weak and the sick. Murie’s work dramatically advanced the understanding of the critical role wolves and other predators play in maintaining a healthy ecosystem.
Next, the episode explores how we humans are actually “the most dangerous species” to the national parks. “The people are wearing out the scenery,” park officials said. At the same time, there was new momentum to develop and modernize the parks with more roads and new facilities, plus tap some of their natural energy resources. But in the public’s backlash, we see the beginning of the modern environmental movement, and America again learned more about its capacity to preserve these unique places. “We are the only species, which, when it chooses to do so, will go to great effort to save what it might also destroy,” said writer and wilderness advocate Wallace Stegner.
In the 1960s, more historical sites, memorials and parks within urban areas were added to the registry, and the parks again proved their value also as a reflection of the chapters of our past. Perhaps the pinnacle of this was Aug. 28, 1963, when the Lincoln Memorial was the backdrop for Martin Luther King’s landmark “I Have a Dream” speech. That day, 250,000 people gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and the National Mall in support of civil rights for black Americans. With Lincoln looming behind Dr. King, a uniformed park ranger at his side and a throng of people in front of him, Americans come to acutely understand that our national parks are about so much more than nature — they represent the extensive and varied character of America itself.
As the overall series closes, the sixth episode comes full circle with the 1995 reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. For the first time in 60-some years, the ecosystem of America’s first national park was complete, brought back into balance through our conscientious efforts.
Respected writer Terry Tempest Williams says restoration is likely to be the challenge for the national parks in the 21st century. But our motivation should be much more than to restore what we have altered, it should be to insure a even better future through the parks for those yet to come.
“Not only are our national parks a gift, I think they are a covenant,” Williams says. “They are a covenant with the future, saying this is where we were, this is what we loved, and now it’s in your hands.”
— John Rockhold
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