National Parks: The Film

Ken Burns focuses his lens on America's best idea.


By Scott Kirkwood


Filmmaker Ken Burns made a name for himself with “The Civil War,” an 11-hour documentary that originally aired on PBS in 1990, capturing the attention of 40 million viewers. Since then, he’s devoted his life to documenting the American experience, turning his eye toward jazz, baseball, and World War II, often with the help of longtime writer and production partner Dayton Duncan. In September, PBS will air the results of their six-year odyssey entitled, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, which tells the history of our parks through the eyes of those responsible for their creation. National Parks editor-in-chief  Scott Kirkwood spoke with Burns and Duncan in New York before a preview of the film.

NP: First off, why national parks?
Ken Burns: We’ve been curious about how our country works from more than 30 years, and we have chosen subjects that we think speak to the heart of who we are as  a country—our collective national identity and the amazing individual stories that make up that national identity. We’ve pursued issues of race, which is the great subtheme of the United States, but we’ve also been aware that the other subtheme is our space—the  magnificent landscape that we have. Our European ancestors essentially lived a geographically proscribed life, rarely venturing beyond where they were, and all of a sudden, the combination of land and democracy set in motion one hell of a great story. We think the best one of all is the story of how a fledgling democracy suddenly decided you could set aside large tracts of natural land, not for the kings and royalty and the very rich who had normally cornered the market on beautiful places, but for everybody for all time—that’s a story right in our wheelhouse.

Dayton Duncan: My interest in parks started when I was just shy of 10 years old, growing up in Iowa. My family took a trip to the Badlands, Little Bighorn, and Yellowstone, where we arrived a couple days after the great earthquake of 1959. We went to Jenny Lake in the Grand Tetons, Dinosaur National Monument…That trip was the only really big trip my family ever took and it awakened in me a love of travel, and now I spend a lot of time traveling the United States writing books or working on films with Ken. It was very clear to me, given my family’s circumstances, that the parks were for everybody—we were part owners and they were essentially free, and that’s what made our trip possible. Then ten years ago, I took my son on the same trip when he was about the same age that I was at the time. I didn’t realize until then the sort of passing of generational memory that the parks play. When I went to Ken with the idea, it took me somewhere between twenty and thirty seconds to convince him a series on the parks would be a good idea.

Burns: I had a distant memory—one that I hadn’t fully understood until recently… My mother way dying of cancer from the time I was first conscious to the time I was 11 years old, and when she passed away, our family was a shell-shocked band of people. But my father once took time out for a buddy trip with his oldest son and we went to Shenandoah. It was 1959, and I was six or seven years old, and like Dayton, I could tell you every single thing we did on that trip, but with a tragedy unfolding around me, I really hadn’t carried the memories in the way that Dayton did. Then during my first trip to Yosemite, I thought “I’ve been in one of these before,” and all of it came flooding back. I didn’t realize the centrality of that experience until the national parks opened a door, a portal that connected me back to my childhood. I’m reminded of something William Cronin said in our film much better than I can say it, but it was essentially that when you’re dealing with parks you’re dealing with the immensity and intimacy of time—you see the great works of erosion, the geological time before you in the case of the Grand Canyon, billions of years of time is arrayed there as Muir said, “like a grand geological library, layer upon layer.” But you’re also very conscious of who you’re with, standing on the rim in that moment. And that was our objective, to convey the history of the national parks—our film isn’t a travelogue, not just pretty pictures of nature and wildlife, not a recommendation of which lodge to stay at, but it’s the story of the individuals and ideas and how they evolve, and how their stories get caught up in this intensely personal experience with the people who took us to the parks. It becomes a personal and self-referential story as much as it is an epic sweep of the last 170 years of park history.

Duncan: In our film, we interview historians who talk about their first experience in a park, and people like Kayci Cook Collins, the superintendent at El Morro National Monument [in New Mexico], who is a fourth-generation park service employee—the only one—and we told the story of her father, John Cook, a legend within the Park Service who managed the controversy of the Alaska parks in 1979-80 [immediately following their creation], whose father had worked at the Grand Canyon, and whose grandfather had worked at Grand Canyon as well. We tell Kayci’s story near the end of the series, with a picture of her and her son, wearing a park ranger’s hat, and she says, “I think he’s got great promise to be the fifth.”
 We follow that immediately with the story of one of the principal people in our film, a commentator throughout, Shelton Johnson, an African-American ranger in Yosemite, right after Kayci talked about her family’s four generations in the park, Johnson talks about growing up in Detroit, he says, “When I was growing up, we didn’t talk about parks—the topic just didn’t come up,” and then he goes on to tell us the story of the first time he went to a park as a young man.
 The interesting thing is the power of the parks—it doesn’t really matter who you are, where you came from, how old you were at the time. If you can go to one, the parks will convert you. It’s just getting people there to experience that transformative power—it’s something that John Muir and Frederick Law Olmstead understood clear back in 1864.

NP: Race plays such a prominent role in all of your other works from the Civil War to Jazz and Baseball, but the people who created many of the parks and the people who visit many of the national parks are of European descent—did the story of race play any role in this film?
Burns: It was natural. When you scratch the surface of American history, you can’t help running up against this bedeviling and ennobling aspect of our story, our national narrative, which is the guy who articulates the credo that “We hold these truths to be self-evident...” happened to own other human beings while he defined for the ages what human liberty would be, setting in motion this amazing American narrative. You don’t have to look hard to find it elsewhere, even in the parks—we weren’t digging for it, it was just there. Certainly you find John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, but we came across dozens of other people from every other conceivable background, nationality, and race who fell in love with some place and dedicated their lives to saving it. There’s George Melendez Wright, who turned the Park Service attention away from just scenery to incorporate wildlife and nature. You’ve got Japanese Americans who had particularly personal, intimate relationships with parks in the Northwest and George Masa who dedicated his life to photographing the Great Smoky Mountains, helping to create the national park through his photos and advocacy efforts. It’s an amazing story and it isn’t just extended to race and ethnicity—there was a schoolteacher in Lincoln, Nebraska, who kept a journal as every bit as poetic and meaningful as anything John Muir wrote, who spent her summer months exploring American’s national parks each year. She wrote, and her husband took photographs, and their story forms the skeleton of one of our episodes. We talk about “discovering” these places, but the earliest Native Americans made these places their homes for centuries, and understood that they were unique long before Europeans arrived.

Duncan: Captain Charles Young, who was the third African American to graduate from West Point, was the acting superintendent of Sequoia at the turn of the last century, with a contingent of Buffalo Soldiers under his direction, which ranger Shelton Johnson discusses in the film. And in the 1960s, Lancelot Jones, who is a grandson of slaves, helps save a series of islands that are now part of Biscayne National Park. So on the one hand, as we tell the evolving story of the national parks, we do make note that most of the tourists in the early days were wealthy—which also means they’re predominantly white and predominantly from the East Coast—but we trace how over time the park experience became more and more democratized. But there’s still a long way to go—the Park Service recognizes it, and everyone who’s concerned about the parks recognizes it. As Ken says, our film shows that the parks are for everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are, how much money you’ve got, your race, your ethnicity—they belong to you. And we hope our film will reveal that to a lot of people who might not realize it. If you’re African-American, there are African Americans who have been part of this story from the beginning. If you’re Asian-American, you can look to George Masa and Chiura Obata... And George Melendez Wright is one of the giants in the national park story; he’s often referred to as George M. Wright, but his middle name is Melendez—his mother is from El Salvador.

Burns: And in our film, his words are read by Andy Garcia... People should also know that this project enjoyed the extraordinary, unprecedented support of the Haas, Jr. Foundation in San Francisco—they not only funded our production but they were anxious to help reach underserved populations, so we’ve created specific films that identify these individual minorities, and we’re making a concerted effort in our promotions to reach out to those cities and those populations that often are ignored or feel that they do not have an ownership in the parks. We want to remind these people that the deed to these places is in your name, too. I was on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and conducted an informal, unscientific survey, and found German was the number one language spoken, followed by Japanese, followed by American English, followed by English, followed by French, and yet many Americans haven’t even visited these places in our own backyard.

NP: How can you possibly tackle the challenge of covering 391 national parks in 12 hours?
Burns: We began with the essential truth of storytelling, which is that we aren’t creating a telephone book or an encyclopedia. We felt under no obligation to list the 391 park units, or even the 58 natural national parks. We weren’t precisely sure where this narrative would go, or how much of it we were going to tell, but we were going to bring in our wake not just most of those national parks—and you do see an image of all of those 58 parks in the film—but as the idea of the national parks evolved, we would bring in themes that were representative of all the others. So we deal with the creation of monuments as we turn our attention to objects of scientific and historical interest. We turn to the purely historical parks in which we’re able to gather most of the military sites into the system. We begin to see how the ecological and biological interests or rationale for creating a park changes, so you have places that don’t have waterfalls or geysers in them, like Everglades, and as we move along we add more and more things, historic homes, places of shameful parts of our past, Central High School, Andersonville, Sand Creek and more modern sites, like the Vietnam Memorial, Shanksville and Oklahoma City [no longer part of the Park Service].
 So although we didn’t feel required to list them all, we have covered every category, and that is indeed the better way of storytelling—where some stories stand in for all the stories. We just finished the film about WWII, the biggest manmade event in world history, and we focused solely on people from four towns in America—not Russia, France, England, and Germany, but four American towns. And we were able to find, as the English poet William Blake said, “the universe in a grain of sand.” The greatest challenge was deciding which stories to tell—you’re heading into this magnificent orchard which is our national parks, and deciding what will fill your apron.  

Duncan: There are really two casts of characters in our film: One cast is the highest thing on the continent, the oldest living things on earth, the deepest lake in the nation with the clearest water in the world, the most massive things on earth, the most majestic landscapes on earth, and we introduce all of these in the very beginning. But after that, we spend the next 11 hours and 45 minutes focusing on the people who walk onto that stage, and how they respond to their surroundings.
 We call it the story of the national park idea. We made it clear to the Park Service, from the beginning, this is not a film about a large though storied government bureaucracy—the park idea is bigger than the Park Service itself, and a lot older, I might add. We wanted to investigate how this happened, who was involved, and how it evolved and expanded over time. And by following that chronologically, it leads us to the park idea broadened to include historic sites such as Mesa Verde, which was the first change. It then evolved beyond Western sites that were already public land—it could include Acadia, which was private land that is donated to the nation. It could be a place like Everglades, which is protecting an environment for the sake of the wildlife and plant life that is there versus the dramatic scenery. In the 1930s, after riding in a car with FDR, Horace Albright convinced the President that a relatively new Park Service would do a better job of interpreting historic sites, so the agency delved into history. And George Melendez Wright says the parks are not just about providing scenery for tourists—we have to preserve the wildlife itself in its natural state. So we link it very much to the whole idea of the Declaration of Independence—ever since Thomas Jefferson penned it, we’ve been arguing the meaning of “all mean are created equal.” Every generation is responsible for wrestling with that ideal, and expanding the meaning of that phrase over the years, and keeping that freedom alive. And the national park idea is exactly the same. It’s up to each generation to wrestle with the definition of a national park, and who’s responsible for it, and how to pass it on to the next generation, and with luck and providence and the right people, it keeps encompassing more and more. Somebody who watches all twelve hours of our film will come away knowing that this is a really big system with a lot of different places, this is our idea and we should take legitimate pride in this concept. Remember, none of this was preordained or automatic. The other great lesson of democracy from the national park story is that this is democracy in action, it is individual Americans—small groups of people—forcing their government to do the right thing, and not just waiting for the government to do it. I think the American people already love their parks, but what we hope to do is tell them why, or try to show them why they should love them even more.

Burns: That’s the thing with baseball, too. you know it’s the national pastime but our film tried to tell people why. There’s another analogy with baseball: When people talk about other sports, they’ll say, “I went to a football game—Joe Montana threw this touchdown pass to Jerry Rice...” or basketball, “They inbounded the ball to Michael Jordan and he hit a three-pointer at the buzzer and we won,” but every baseball story begins with, “My dad or my mom took me to the game... and then Mickey Mantle hit a home run,” and the story goes on... And the parks are the same—all of the stories begin with who you were with when you first saw them, and that’s the key.

NP: What surprised you most during the last few years working on this project?
Burns: I have spent the last six years with my jaw permanently on the floor, obviously from the spectacular natural scenery that I have been privileged to see, not only as a visitor, but as a professional, getting up at dawn, hiking into the backcountry, but also in learning the stories. To learn the improbable story of an ordinary citizen reading about a deep, clear lake in Oregon on a newspaper that had wrapped his lunchtime meal in Kansas, spending 15 years trying to see this place, then another 15 years helping to make it into a national park. Just a kid from Kansas, William Gladstone Pale. What’s the probability? He’s just unwrapping his lunch and happens to be reading the paper, and sees what was probably a grease-stained picture of Crater Lake. Then thirty-plus years later, it’s a park. In the film, we’ve got this gorgeous shot of an old man taking boy scouts around Crater Lake toward the end of his life, and you can feel this sense of intimate ownership... at the end of the day, it’s a sort of revelation.

Duncan: If you turn over the rock of any national park, you find a person or a small group of people who fell in love with a place and then worked tirelessly to save it, so other people could fall in love with it. It’s great as storytellers, to see this repetitive story unfold in a different place, with a different cast of characters with their own challenges and their own sense of wonder—as filmmakers, we just had to decide which stories to tell.

NP: As storytellers, you’re revealing the past, but NPCA obviously cares about the future of the parks, as well. Why is it important to preserve these places?
Burns: The key to the future is, paradoxically, the past. That’s always been true, but now more than ever, because we are so dialectically preoccupied—the environmental issues that are coming up today set off buttons of partisan politics that often make it impossible for people to hear each other. But regardless of the color of your state, as Americans we share a common past and that has had the fuel rod of intensity pulled out of it, so that it is possible to hear a story in the past and realize this is not at all different from our contemporary stories. Our film doesn’t delve into these contemporary arguments—the last major narrative story we tell is the Alaska Natural Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, but every single movement of our film is filled with issues that were equally compelling and sometimes identical to the ones we’re facing today. What you find in the past is a platform in which reasonable people of whatever persuasion can come together because they share that past, and then make decisions that are informed less by partisanship and by the contemporary rancor that we experience today and more with the sense of community and what makes us all Americans. That’s why the past is such an effective tool in uniting people. We share this past, and while we argue so vociferously and sometimes with great violence, and sometimes talk beyond one another, particularly during election cycles, history is a place where you can have a conversation with people whose politics you don’t necessarily share, for whom the current issue is live-or-die, but suddenly realize that compromise is what resolved that question back then, and you figure out ways to go forward. Harry Truman said it: “You can’t possibly know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.”

Duncan: As Ken said, every issue facing the parks today is a modern permutation of issues that have faced the parks from the very start. A Congress that doesn’t provide enough money—that’s there at the beginning as well. But at different times different people have been able to convince elected leaders not only to set a park aside, but to provide money for it. It wasn’t until FDR, newly sworn-in president in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, ponied up the federal money to help buy the last remaining portions of the Great Smokies to create that national park. That was the first time the federal government spent its own money to buy land for a national park. (Yosemite had been created years earlier, back in 1864 and given to the state of California.) There have been presidential administrations that have done more than others, but too many people crowding in the parks was a big issue right after WWII, and during Mission 66, people started worrying that the Park Service was building too many roads... Issues have always been there, and for parks to thrive and continue into the future, it’s going to require the same type of people we present to the American people as examples from our history. If you want to save the national parks, learn the story of John Muir. If you’re discouraged about funding and the state of the parks, you’re not alone. Stephen Mather takes on the same issues... We hope that with the separation that comes with the passage of time, we can reintroduce the American public to the majesty of this inheritance and although it’s not our job, that may help organizations like NPCA and others to build on that momentum and gather political support and philanthropic support, but we’re historians, not advocates....

NP: Before I took the job of National Parks editor, I have to admit, I never enjoyed history, but after you interview a few rangers, you learn to love it. What was it like talking to so many park rangers and park lovers?
Burns: It’s living history, and the reason you didn’t like it is a combination of factors—for the last 50-plus years, the academic world has looked down its nose on narrative history. They’ve looked for other conceptual frameworks—economic, Marxist, deconstruction, semiotics—all of these things that essentially put a scrim between you and your ability to get it... and all of that trickled down into high school and elementary school, and you end up with people who weren’t good teachers forgetting that the word “history” is mostly made up of the word “story,” and story is essentially always the same—it’s one human being telling another human being something that happened. And that’s what we do—we go to other human beings and we say, “What happened?’” And when you interact with someone as passionate as a park ranger—they’re not there to make a fortune, they’re not there because this is the only thing they can do… they’re there because they want to be there and in order to do their job well, they not only have to take in the American history, or the Native American history, they need to take in the geological history that, in some cases goes back to the creation of the Earth, and put it all together. They’re also incredibly personable, dedicated, interesting, funny, smart people. Some of my favorite archival photographs in the film are rapt tourists listening to John Muir or a ranger out in the mountains with the “floral elysium” as Muir called it or gathered around a campfire, and you realize you’re drawn to it because it goes back to the beginning, history started the moment that someone came back to the cave, gathered around the fire and said, “That wooly mammoth—I thought I had him, you won’t believe how big that woolly mammoth was...”

Duncan: Obviously, the creation of the National Park Service in 1916 is an important moment in the national park story, but it comes half way through our twelve-hour series. A lot of park ideas and park history had occurred before 1916, but that part of our film focuses on Stephen Mather and Horace Albright very deliberately trying to create the mystique of the park ranger, saying this is the type of people we want—professionals. Mather had seen some interpreters at Lake Tahoe and he thought it was a good idea. So he began the interpretive programs, and they became the most popular part of a park visit—simply talking to a ranger. And, understand that I don’t mean to denigrate any public employee, but I don’t think that Postal Service employees approach their job in quite the same manner as a park ranger mainly because a park ranger’s job is in these treasured landscapes or these treasured parts of our history—it’s almost impossible for that not to seep through them and for the public not see them as the representatives of this treasured space that is so important to them as they bring to this job this extra mission. And they’re viewed, next to the military, as the most admired public servants.

Burns: One thing that’s so difficult to do is illustrate the spiritual dimension of this story—this land was set aside because of a rapturous relationship that 19th-century Americans had with their landscape. The shorthand is that it would be easier to find God in a national park or in these wild places than in a European cathedral built by man. We have these intensely personal, indeed spiritual relationships with these places, and you could say park rangers have a calling in that larger sense, they are called. Something else animates their relationship to their job beyond the paycheck, the benefits, the hours... and we feel we’ve been called to produce this film as well. It’s a calling, just like it was for Muir and for Frederick Law Olmstead and all the philosophical ancestors of Emerson and Thoreau. Muir said in order to learn something about one’s self, to understand the deeper Socratic questions, you have to go out, that nature is this agency for figuring out who you are. And we find time and time again that people present themselves into something much bigger, they feel, as one person said, their atomic insignificance in the face of these magnificent works of nature, but are paradoxically made bigger themselves, enthused by what they see. That’s a great story.

To learn more, visit www.pbs.org/nationalparks.

This article appears in the Spring 2009 issue.

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