Nation's Parks Star In Ken Burns' New Documentary

Filmed over the course of more than six years at some of the country's most awe-inspiring locales, The National Parks: America's Best Idea is a six-part, 12-hour film by Ken Burns on the history of America's national parks that premiers on PBS this Sunday.

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hide captionFilmmaker Ken Burns at Montana's Glacier National Park in 2008. Burns is noted for his past long-form documentaries on the Civil War, baseball, jazz and World War II.

Jason Savage/Courtesy of Florentine Films and WETA Washington, D.C.
Filmmaker Ken Burns

Filmmaker Ken Burns at Montana's Glacier National Park in 2008. Burns is noted for his past long-form documentaries on the Civil War, baseball, jazz and World War II.

Jason Savage/Courtesy of Florentine Films and WETA Washington, D.C.

Filmmaker Ken Burns' new PBS documentary series starts in 19th century America. The natural wonder of Niagara Falls was so commercialized and overdeveloped that the great French traveler and writer Alexis de Tocqueville urged his readers to come see it soon, before it was too late.

The new series, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, which Burns made with writer Dayton Duncan, is about what rose up in opposition to that commercialization — the uniquely American idea of the national parks.

Burns' six-part series spans 12 hours. The first episode premiers Sunday night on PBS.

A Spiritual Experience

More than six years of work on this series led Burns to some interesting discoveries, like the true motivation that inspired the preservation of vast swaths of territory to create the national park system.

Clips From The National Parks: America's Best Idea

"When I would say I was working on a film about the history, not a travelogue, not a nature film, but a history of the national parks, [people] go 'Oh, Theodore Roosevelt, conservation.' I say, 'Yeah, that was the second impulse; the first impulse is spiritual," Burns tells NPR's Robert Siegel.

Many of the early supporters of the creation of a national park system had experienced revelatory moments out in nature and wanted to salvage wild land so future generations could have similar experiences.

"Let us set them aside," says Burns about the thinking of the early park proponents. "Wouldn't it be possible for a democratic people to own in common these things?"

It was only later on that President Theodore Roosevelt would come to underscore the conservation component of the endeavor.

An Ecstatic Holy Man

Naturalist John Muir was a central figure in the creation of the national park system and a major character in Burns' documentary. He played an influential role in persuading Roosevelt to salvage wild land, after the naturalist and the president camped together for three days in Yosemite in 1903.

  • A man and woman lounge on Eagle Rock in Yosemite National Park, circa 1902.
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    A man and woman lounge on Eagle Rock in Yosemite National Park, circa 1902.
    Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
  • A century ago, tourists had free rein to go wherever in the nation's parks they wished, which included warming their feet in the waters of Great Fountain Geyser
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    A century ago, tourists had free rein to go wherever in the nation's parks they wished, which included warming their feet in the waters of Great Fountain Geyser
    Yellowstone National Park
  • Ellsworth and Emery Kolb (pictured) established their photographic studio on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in 1902.  (Credit: Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection)
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    Ellsworth and Emery Kolb (pictured) established their photographic studio on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in 1902. (Credit: Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection)
  • Before the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, the task of protecting the handful of national parks fell to the U.S. Army. Among the guardians were African-American "Buffalo Soldiers," shown here in 1903.
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    Before the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, the task of protecting the handful of national parks fell to the U.S. Army. Among the guardians were African-American "Buffalo Soldiers," shown here in 1903.
    Karen Silliman
  • In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt (left) camped in Yosemite with naturalist John Muir (right), who encouraged Roosevelt to make Yosemite Valley part of a larger national park.
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    In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt (left) camped in Yosemite with naturalist John Muir (right), who encouraged Roosevelt to make Yosemite Valley part of a larger national park.
    Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
  • Park regulations discouraged tourists from feeding bears, but even Horace Albright (pictured in 1922), who later became director of the National Park Service, realized what a popular attraction they were.
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    Park regulations discouraged tourists from feeding bears, but even Horace Albright (pictured in 1922), who later became director of the National Park Service, realized what a popular attraction they were.
    Marian Albright Schenck
  • The first director of the new National Park Service, Stephen Mather (left) and his successor, Horace Albright (right), open Yellowstone for the 1923 season at a gate made of elk horns.
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    The first director of the new National Park Service, Stephen Mather (left) and his successor, Horace Albright (right), open Yellowstone for the 1923 season at a gate made of elk horns.
    Marian Albright Schenck
  • In the 1930s, a group of tourists listens to Superintendent John White at Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park. White was in charge of the park for more than a quarter century.
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    In the 1930s, a group of tourists listens to Superintendent John White at Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park. White was in charge of the park for more than a quarter century.
    Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
  • Despite his disability, which confined him to the back seat of his touring car, President Franklin Roosevelt (at Yellowstone) loved to visit national parks.
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    Despite his disability, which confined him to the back seat of his touring car, President Franklin Roosevelt (at Yellowstone) loved to visit national parks.
    National Archives and Records Administration

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Burns describes Muir as an "ecstatic holy man" who spent much of his life in the Sierra and devised a new faith, based in nature.

"We didn't yet know why we needed these places and he reminded us, for both scientific and but also sort of spiritual reasons, why saving these places would be good for our souls," Burns says. "The parks represent in the early years almost a spiritual advancement for the United States, and only later does the conservation ethic come in."

Muir was a holy man, but also an astute student of nature.

"What we have is the classic merging, as we're beginning to find today, of science and religion, in some of the biggest questions that face us with regard to environmental and ecological issues," Burns says.

Mysterious Boiling Pools

Before Yellowstone became the first official national park, "crazy" stories circulated about remote places where mud boiled and huge pillars of steam rose from the ground.

"Mountain men would come through and say, there's a lake where you can catch a fish, and then swing your line over and cook the fish in a hot spring," Burns says. "People wouldn't believe it."

Finally an expedition went out in 1871 to definitively prove the existence of the hot pools and geysers.

Clash Of Preservation And Exploitation

Historic photographs play an important role in this and all Ken Burns documentaries. Ansel Adams, the famed nature and landscape photographer, and his work, are part of Burns' documentary.

"Franklin Delano Roosevelt created Kings Canyon, a wilderness park in California, based on the photographs of Ansel Adams," Burns says. "He would never be able to get there ... confined to a wheelchair."

The works of Adams helped inspire the preservation of land that many people — builders, miners and other industrialists — wanted to exploit.

"Americans are an inquisitive and extractive people; some would say rapacious. We look at a river and we think dam ... we look at a canyon and we wonder what minerals we can extract," Burns says. "So the national parks become a story not just of beauty and birds and lovely little deer and feeding the bear cubs, but a huge conflict against very real forces in America — one that wants to preserve and one that wants to exploit."

'The Best Idea We've Ever Had'

Despite the American inclination to exploit, Burns also says the urge to preserve was also uniquely American.

"For the first time in human history land was set aside, not for kings or noblemen or the very rich, as all land had been disposed in all of human history before that, but for everybody and all time," Burns says. "Like the idea of freedom, it's a pretty good export; more than 200 countries ... have copied us."

And people from around the world also come to witness America's national parks:

"If you ever go to Yosemite or Yellowstone or stand on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, English is the third or fourth language you hear, after German and Japanese and French," Burns says. "That's thrilling to understand that the world beats a path to our door for this very simple idea, what [American historian] Wallace Stegner said was the best idea we've ever had."

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