The National Parks: America’s Best Documentary?

If someone from the National Park Service ever hands you a business card, flip it over. On the back, you’ll find the simple slogan “Experience Your America.”

My most recent experience was among my most powerful…and the fact that it was delivered via 12 hours of watching TV is an irony that has yet to wear off.

In late October, I was invited to join some 100 park superintendents, PBS officials, nonprofit types and others for a sneak preview of “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” the latest documentary from award-winning filmmakers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan.

From far and wide, we converged on the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, WV. There was no red carpet waiting, though the walkways on the NCTC campus were covered with brown sycamore leaves the size of dinner plates.

After a gracious welcome from NPS Director Mary Bomar, Burns stated “the idea of national parks has at its heart an essential democratic impulse” and, quoting educator John Wesley Hill, movingly added that “patriotism is the religion of the soil.”

As for the film, it is a rich and powerful history lesson told in six, two-hour episodes. There are ample beauty shots – wait till you see the aerials of Gates of the Arctic – but the documentary unfolds more like a textbook than a coffee table book. (There will, however, be a companion publication with stunning images from photographer Tuan Luong and typically brilliant text from writer and SCA board member Duncan, both of whom appear in the film.)

The documentary traces the formation of the park system, which celebrates its centennial in 2016, and opens with an extensive look at John Muir and his campaign to protect Yosemite. In an amusing sidebar, the film relates how Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt ditched White House aides and a bewildered press corps to spend several days in the Yosemite backcountry hiking, camping and, in Muir’s case, lobbying on behalf of his beloved California wild lands.

From the establishment of Yellowstone as America’s first national park to the addition of vast tracks of Alaskan wilderness and numerous historic and cultural monuments to the park system, Burns and Duncan cover more than a century and a half of conservation and conflict: man v. nature, environmentalists v. industry, feds v. locals, man v. man. This last point is illustrated time and again, from the mistreatment of Native Americans to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Ultimately, however, the documentary showcases the unique powers of nature over the human soul and why preserving these amazing sanctuaries is so critical to our quality of life. A variety of experts appear on-camera to provide historical perspective, famous voices including those of Tom Hanks, Sam Waterston and Amy Madigan give life to those figures who can no longer speak for themselves, and writers such as Terry Tempest Williams and Nevada Barr offer poignant commentaries that put into words what most of us can only feel.

I would not be surprised if at least one star emerges from “The National Parks,” scheduled to premiere in September 2009. Shelton Johnson, an African-American ranger at Yosemite, was supposed to have been featured only in a segment on the Buffalo Soldiers, the all-Black, post-Civil War Cavalry Regiment. Johnson’s masterful ability to connect with his audience and infectious sense of wonder earned him a recurring role in the film.

Viewers will no doubt be affected by the sheer gravity projected by Mount Rushmore Superintendent Gerard Baker. A Native American, Baker appears in the feature documentary as well as an accompanying shorter film, and effectively blends pained dismay and wry humor in his observations about his country’s relationship with its indigenous peoples.

I don’t know what Burns and Duncan knew in 2002 when they first began filming, but they’ve assembled a lush story told largely through the eyes, voices and lives of numerous Black, Latino, Asian-American, Indian and other diverse figures. I can only salute the remarkable prescience that finds the artists putting the finishing touches on their production as the country prepares to inaugurate its first African-American president.

One final note, or plug, if you will. Earlier this year, Ken Burns keynoted a “Green Tie” Gala as part of SCA’s 50th anniversary. While showing some clips, he enthusiastically noted that “making the film has taken us to more than 50 of the 58 natural parks – and at nearly every place we filmed, we met SCA volunteers or learned that the ranger guiding us was an alumna or alumnus of the program.”

SCA will be partnering with many parks and PBS affiliates around the country as anticipation for the film builds. Check back for updates, clips and more in the weeks and months ahead.

Photos courtesy of WETA/Florentine Films