11/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Burns' PBS National Parks : Wonders For All to Behold

We couldn't have picked a better time to start watching my advance press copy of Ken Burns' new PBS series on the national parks: We'd just visited Glacier Bay in Alaska. It may well be the ultimate gem of the National Park system, even though relatively few ever get up there to see it.

One is left shaking one's head in disbelief after seeing this wondrous and still-pristine park, and how little man has intruded into it - unlike, say, Yosemite.

Burns' 12-hour, 6-part series, aptly named, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, starts Sunday night on PBS and runs all next week. You should try to watch it in hi-def, but do watch it.

This inspirational new series also about the right length, as opposed to two earlier Burns opuses, Jazz (Wynton Marsalis' and Burns' hyperextended homage to Satchmo) and the ridiculous, seemingly interminable Baseball, which ran for more hours than a home-and-away series -- travel included.

Given the rapaciousness of today's fixers and entrepreneurs and the anything-to-make-a-buck mentality fostered by Ronald Reagan and most of his successors, it's somewhat amazing the National Parks are even still in existence and free of oil and gas leases, to say nothing of clear-cutting. Not that the past few years have been easy on these irreplaceable parks: Most are badly underfunded and have been treated like unwanted orphans. (e.g., the main visitors' center at little-visited but lovely Lassen National Park in California is about the same size as a mobile home).

Burns turns up several little-known historical surprises in Sunday's opener. Such as the way Niagara Falls was turned into a glorified sideshow by sharks and other despoilers.

Or the fact that, in 1864, when Yosemite was first protected by Congress, it was as a California state, not national, park. It was the first time any government had ever reserved a large chunk of land for public use, but the bill's passage received scant notice. (Of course, there was a civil war going on at the time).

Much of the opener focuses on environmental icon John Muir, who walked to Yosemite from his distant San Francisco-area home, and then spent months hiking around the park and even living in its trees. The transplanted Scotsman was a wilderness junkie, and he soon alerted the public to Yosemite's wonders,

In 1872, Yellowstone became the first National Park - because it was located in what was then a territory, Wyoming, rather than a state.

Even after Yosemite was protected, the developers and promoters tried to move in, and it took a major effort to oust them.

The series employs the well-known Burns formula - a fiddle-driven soundtrack, voice-overs with credits, etc. But here it works and is non-intrusive. It'd be a shame to detract from all the wondrous sights shown here. Burns has noted that it's no small matter to show these natural settings today without a trace of men or their roads.

Peter Coyote provides the dignified narration, and you'll also hear the voices of Tom Hanks, John Lithgow, George Takei (!) and Sam Waterston, among others.

You may actually feel a sense of pride in watching this.

Next time you encounter a right-wing blowhard who's swallowed (as so many have) the Reagan Kool-Aid and insists government can't do anything right, tell him to watch "The National Parks."

Still, even saying that, it's doubtful that trying to create the National Parks in today's lobbyist-infested Washington would ever make it out of a U.S. Senate subcommittee.