Not every character in The National Parks is a hero, which is just as well. Too much nobility and sequoia juice could be cloying. The doppelganger of Teddy Roosevelt, for example, is Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service and two-time governor of Pennsylvania. Though he professionalized the Forest Service, he took a utilitarian view of natural resources—that they should be developed and used, not simply set aside for people to enjoy. That strain of the American character has vied with the preservationist for control over the nation’s wild spaces, and the tension between the two camps—and others—is with us still.
“The tensions are not just, ‘Will the park get created or not?’” says Duncan. “We like to say it’s the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape, and that very notion sets in motion tensions. If it’s open for everybody, if everybody’s co-owner, can there be rules of what they can do? Are we saving it just for this generation, or for generations yet unborn? If it’s for everyone for all time, then what do we allow? Is it the scenery that we’re preserving, or is there something more?”
Those who want to create a national park have often been at loggerheads with local people who don’t want to relinquish control of the land to the federal government, he points out. Yet over time, that local opposition has often morphed into a grudging approval.
“We have several of those stories, not only historical but in our lifetime,” says Duncan. “Someone who fought and fought against the expansion of Grand Teton National Park as a politician and then, on camera, says he’s glad he lost the battle. Someone in Alaska testifying against the ‘Carter Monuments,’ as those national parks were called, and then on camera saying, ‘Well, it turned out it’s been good for us.’”
Oddly enough, some of the most nakedly commercial interests ended up helping the parks’ cause.
“John Muir was an eloquent person, but the reason that those early parks were created was not his eloquence; it was because the railroad lobby was working the halls of Congress,” Duncan points out. “They thought, ‘Here’s a scenic attraction that will help our ridership,’ and eventually they said, ‘and maybe we can control what goes on inside the park and make even more money.’”
Every issue facing the parks today has a precedent in the past, Duncan adds. “The Army, when it was running Yosemite and Sequoia national parks and there was a problem of poaching, started confiscating people’s guns when they came in. This was long before this latest uproar about guns in national parks became an issue.”
The millions of people who visit the national parks each year encompass a wide range of recreational preferences, ranging from backcountry hikers to those who want what Duncan calls “the windshield experience.” And he is adamant that both styles should be respected.
“I’ve stood at viewpoints and watched a busload of people get off, and thought to myself, ‘The most exercise those 50 people are going to have this year is getting off that tour bus and walking the 25 yards into the beautiful scenic view and say, ‘Wow, isn’t that something,’ turn around, and get back on their bus. And that’s easy to caricature. But those people, nonetheless, will have been touched by that experience. And when somebody says, ‘They’re thinking of building a dam in the Grand Canyon,’ they’ll say, ‘Don’t you let them do that!’ And they have as legitimate a stake as the person who’s going to do the two-week backcountry, hard-core experience where they can be by themselves in nature. It belongs to all of us.”
“What is this, a Phish concert?” asked a passerby. His confusion was understandable. The line at the Bellows Falls Opera House this past July 1 was already a block and a half long, and the doors wouldn’t open for another half-hour. The sold-out event featured a special screening of excerpts from The National Parks and a Q & A session afterward with Duncan and Burns. Since Bellows Falls, Vermont, is just across the Connecticut River from Walpole, and since the proceeds were earmarked for the Walpole Historical Society and the Student Conservation Association (which sends student volunteers to work in national parks around the country), the filmmakers weren’t exactly stumbling into enemy territory. And indeed, when the excerpts end—the gorgeous shots of frost-bearded bison in Yellowstone and molten lava snaking down the black rock of Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park, the articulate interviews with historians and park rangers, the archival footage of presidents and early visitors—the audience responds with a prolonged standing ovation.
Similar reactions have occurred at some other preliminary screenings around the country. “People come to us and say, ‘How can we help?’ and ‘How do we give money?’ says David Barna, chief of public affairs for the National Park Service, who thinks the film (which he calls “stunning”) will provide a significant boost to attendance.
“The park service gets about 275 million visitors a year,” Barna says. “That number fluctuates some from year to year, but this could easily push us over the 300 million mark.”
Such a bump would not be without precedent. Burns tells his Bellows Falls audience how, after The Civil War aired on PBS in 1990, he walked a battlefield at Gettysburg with the park superintendant. At one point, the superintendent leaned down to pick up a candy wrapper and said dryly, “This is all your fault.”
“There is nothing Dayton and I would like more,” Burns added puckishly, “than to have every superintendent in every park in the country angry with us.”
This past March, the National Park Service showed how it really felt. During a ceremony at the Department of the Interior auditorium, acting director Dan Wenk read citations announcing that Duncan and Burns had been chosen to be made honorary park rangers (a very select group, by the way). After praising his work in researching and producing The National Parks, which provides Americans with an “opportunity to reflect on the significance and value of our national parks, the public lands that we collectively own,” Wenk announced that Duncan had “demonstrated the highest and best qualities of the park ranger-interpreter.” He then presented him with one of the park service’s distinctive ranger hats.
Duncan doesn’t attempt to hide his feelings about that honor.
“When I’m at home, if I get cranky, Dianne says, ‘Go put the ranger hat on. Because you’re never in a bad mood when you’re wearing your ranger hat.’”
Sept|Oct 09 contents
A Hymn to the Parks By Samuel Hughes
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