America's Best Idea

11/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

The White House, Washington, D.C. -- I mean, how cool is it to be watching a special one-hour excerpt from Ken Burns's 12-hour PBS special on the National Parks in the White House screening room with President Obama, Interior Secretary Salazar, three Park Service Directors, and a select group of members of Congress?

Even better is the dialogue and interaction between the President and filmakers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan, and the way in which some of the core themes of the series -- called America's Best Idea -- resonate with our current social and political dilemmas. At one point Burns says that all of his PBS specials, from the Civil War onward, drive at one question: "Who are we, we Americans?"

Burns says that consistently the answer turns out to engage two repeating themes, place and democracy, and in particular whether democracy can overcome our dilemmas around race. Repeatedly in the film, the people interviewed (including my own brief snippet) focus on the democratic nature of the National Park system, in which every American owns an equal share in the nation's best real estate. Also highlighted is what one historian said: "That to be an American is to have a connection with the American landscape -- that's what actually transforms us into Americans." On screen, President Obama describes his first encounter with the parks when at age 11 he and his mother came from Hawai'i to the mainland, a place Obama had always dreamed about, and visited Yellowstone National Park where, on his first encounter with a bison, history was almost rewritten when young Barack ran too close to get his snapshot -- the next kid who imitated him almost got trampled.

Sitting next to me in the White House screening room is Ranger Shelton Johnson, from Yosemite, author of the recent Sierra Club-published novel Gloryland. Johnson has brought back to life the history of the African-American cavalry troops known as Buffalo Soldiers, who were the first national park rangers. Johnson is a key part of Burns's story, which pivots on how park advocates and heroes have ranged from the patrician (John D. Rockefeller) to the grassroots, but how, in the end, the national parks story is, as Burns says, "a bottom-up, not a top-down story."

These one hour of excerpts we're watching focus, understandably, on the Presidential role in the history of the parks: Teddy Roosevelt at Yellowstone, Franklin Roosevelt and the Civilian Conservation Corps, and John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson supporting Interior Secretary Stewart Udall as he dramatically expands the size and role of the parks. We see Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Lincoln Memorial, and hear how the Memorial has helped transform America's attitudes towards race. Trust me, an hour really isn't enough! We all left thirsting for more.

If you want to see what the excitement is about, join the Sierra Club at one of our 750 house parties to watch a one-hour sneak peek of the film on or around this Sunday night, September 20. Can't make it this weekend? Invite some friends to watch the series premiere on Sunday, September 27, and download our discussion and take action materials here. For more information about America's Best Idea, Shelton Johnson and his book Gloryland, the Sierra Club, and our National Parks, click here.