The National Parks: America’s Best Idea is both a six-part, 12-hour film airing on PBS this month and a companion book published by Alfred A. Knopf. It’s not much of an exaggeration to call the film a hymn, and the book a lavishly illustrated hymnal. Those who received the wild’s call, like John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt—and Dayton Duncan—emerged with a wilderness-revering passion that borders on the religious.
“This is the morning of creation,” John Muir was heard to cry out during an early Sierra Club outing. “The whole thing is beginning now! The mountains are singing together.”
As with most Burns/Duncan collaborations, there are plenty of outsized characters, whose stories are presented warts and all. (Well, maybe there aren’t any warts on Muir, unless you’re put off by the fact that he once drank the steeped juice of sequoia cones in order to make himself “more tree-like and sequoical.”)
“We’re old-fashioned historical-narrative storytellers,” says Duncan. “We very much believe that you start here and you move through time. And we want to bring people to life because that’s how history actually occurs—with real people, not knowing how things are going to turn out, making decisions and doing things.”
Take the second episode, which begins with a young New York politician reading a newspaper article about the destruction of the buffalo herds and becoming so upset about their looming extinction that he jumped on a train headed west. His name was Theodore Roosevelt, and his goal on that trip was to bag a buffalo before the species became extinct.
“Teddy Roosevelt is just a force of nature, and a great exemplar of how nobody is stereotypical,” says Duncan, whose film on Mark Twain cast the president in a slightly less favorable light. “You love him as you’d love a boisterous nephew, knowing that he also breaks the china. As [historian] Clay Jenkinson says in our film, he has a little suspicion of anybody who wasn’t willing to kill a quadruped.”
While Roosevelt never lost his love of hunting, “there was an evolution in his own mind about what conservation was about, partly under the tutelage of George Bird Grinnell,” adds Duncan, referring to the conservationist and Audubon Society founder. “Grinnell helped steer him towards a larger view of conservation, and the result was the greatest president for the national parks and conservation you could ever imagine.”
Ask Burns about the film’s wide range of compelling characters, and he plays down the big names.
“It’s funny—when people bring it up they always say, ‘Oh, Teddy Roosevelt,’” he says. “And I say, ‘Yes, and he’s fantastic, but he’s one part of our second of six episodes.’ Or maybe you’ll have someone who knows about John Muir, or John D. Rockefeller [Jr]. But what was so wonderful, and surprising for us, was the discovery—without any kind of politically correct attempt to root it out—that this was just an amazingly diverse story, that is black, and brown, and red, and yellow, and female, and unknown, as much as it is male, and white, and well-known. And that makes for some good storytelling.” (An ironic example of that diversity is the fact that Yosemite and Sequoia national parks were overseen by the Buffalo Soldiers in the first decade of the 20th century—“when more African Americans were lynched than at any other time in our history,” as Burns points out.)
A sampling of characters includes:
Virginia McClurg, the champion of Mesa Verde, who at the last minute changed her tack from preserving the ruins as a national park to having it become a “women’s park run by her very exclusive women’s organization,” says Duncan. “At the final moment, she couldn’t quite get to it becoming a national park, and everybody’s park, instead of just her park.”
George Melendez Wright, a naturalist who in the late 1920s undertook—and funded out of his own pocket—a wildlife survey of the parks, which would provide the data and recommendations for putting the wild back in wildlife.
“We take it for granted today, but it wasn’t always that way,” Duncan points out. “When I was visiting Yellowstone you could stop and feed the bears. There were no wolves, because they’d all been killed.”
U.S. Representative John F. Lacey of Iowa, author of some of the most important environmental legislation in the nation’s history.
“Lacey was a very conservative Republican, but he had a number of radical ideas,” says Duncan. “He saved the birds of the Everglades from being slaughtered. He wrote the law that gave protection to the buffalo and the elk, and the natural features of Yellowstone. And this conservative Republican authored the Antiquities Act, which ceded to the president of the United States an authority to act unilaterally that no Congress in its right mind anymore would ever do. It became the most important tool for conservation in our history, one that activist presidents have used to the horror of Congress, and to the outrage of local politicians—at the Grand Canyon with Theodore Roosevelt, at the Tetons with Franklin Roosevelt, in Alaska with Jimmy Carter, with Bill Clinton in the southern part of Utah.”
George Bird Grinnell, the conservationist and Audubon Society founder who led the fight to create Glacier National Park. (He also teamed up with General Phil Sheridan, who had become so disgusted by the slaughter of Yellowstone’s wildlife that he dispatched a troop of cavalry to oversee the park—a “temporary” measure that lasted some 30 years.)
Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the Miami journalist and nature writer who led the fight to save Biscayne Bay.
Stephen Mather, the dynamic marketing executive who pestered Interior Secretary Franklin Lane (a college classmate) about the parks’ deteriorating condition until Lane told him: “If you don’t like the way the parks are being run, come on down to Washington and run them yourself.” Mather spent a great deal of his own money improving the parks, lobbied for the creation of a National Parks Service, and became its first director.
There are others, of course, ranging from hardscrabble Civilian Conservation Corps workers who built roads and planted trees during the Depression to early Studebaker-driving park visitors to some amazingly poetic park rangers.
All those stories “show a wide range of the kind of people who fell in love with these places,” Burns adds. “This is not just noblesse oblige; this is not just the province of the idle rich, but in fact a story of Americans from every stripe who fell in love with the place, and then worked very, very hard to set it aside for people they don’t know—meaning us.”
“If you boil it all down, the story behind each national park is that somebody says, ‘Wow—what a wonderful place. We ought to save it,’” notes Duncan. “Over time that could become a fairly boring, repetitive thing—except that each place is different, and each person is different.”