11/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ken Burns' New National Parks Documentary Starts Slowly, But Gets Better

This Sunday evening PBS will debut the first episode of famous documentary-maker Ken Burns' The National Parks: America's Best Idea. It's a 12 hour long epic story, divided into six parts. PBS will be sequentially airing one new episode each night over the week.

If you are not aware who Ken Burns is, perhaps you are familiar with some of his documentaries. He is best known for The Civil War, a documentary that was revolutionary upon its release. To tell the story of one of the United States' most significant events, Burns used slow camera movement over still photos, interviews with historians, emotional music, and superb storytelling to captivate audiences and inspire unparalleled interest in American history. Using these same techniques, he continued his exploration of American identity with documentaries like Jazz, Baseball, and Thomas Jefferson. His technique of scrolling over still photos to show their details more dynamically has even been dubbed "The Ken Burns Effect."


So how good is The National Parks: America's Best Idea?

My guess is that those people who watch only the first few episodes will think the documentary is of some interest, but always teetering on the edge of boredom. Those who stay around longer, or just cherry pick an episode to watch among the later episodes will end up much more excited and satisfied. Before I plunge into a deeper analysis, for those who wish to find out which episode you should watch above all others, I recommend Episode 4 (airing initially on Wednesday September 30th). It is the masterpiece of the series.

Also before I go further in explaining my specific thoughts about each episode, it seems entirely appropriate for me to mention that I've personally worked for a number of national parks over a period of about 10 years, in different capacities ranging from park ranger to researcher. Much of what is in Burns' documentary was old information made new again for me, but I also discovered new things that were interesting. Aware of my own background and bias, I watched each episode with an eye for what I think a more casual park enthusiast, or even a neophile, would find interesting.

Parts 1 & 2 Meticulously Explain how the First Parks Were Created

You'd think that Burns would start of his documentary with a bang, but instead there's a dogged sense that Burns felt it necessary to adhere to chronology. Thus the first episode is almost entirely about the creation of Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks. It feels like we don't get enough meat on the bone out of these first two hours.

John Muir, one of the most important proponents for Yosemite's protection (and later other natural areas), is clearly the hero of Burns and his chief writer Dayton Duncan. He is the primary character of Part 1 and his unabashed cry for preservation of wild areas resonates throughout the series. I wouldn't at all be surprised if Burns and Duncan plan on editing their footage to carve out a singular Muir documentary.

But the focus on the origin of parks and John Muir is also something of a weakness to the film's beginning. It seems as if we are in fact watching a documentary about Yellowstone and Yosemite by themselves, or even John Muir, rather than all of the national parks. We get other glimpses of parks, but it seems haphazard and disjointed in how they show up for several minutes at a time. For instance, a segment about Crater Lake seems oddly out of place until we later learn that it was one of the first parks to be designated after Yellowstone and Yosemite.

There are interesting details in Part 1 such as Muir building a cabin at Yosemite that allowed for a small portion of a creek to pass inside the cabin so he could enjoy the babble as he slept at night. There's also a fascinating tale about an early Yellowstone visitor who became lost and survived the winter cold by sleeping next to a bubbling hot spring. But Part 1 mostly feels like something that should be shown in Conservation History 101 classes rather than to the general public. Indeed, for us park nerds it is a great educational resource.

Part 2 picks up a little momentum with the addition of President Theodore Roosevelt as a character, but still ultimately is (dare I say it) a tad dull. We learn about Roosevelt's championing of the parks, and how he autocratically created many of the parks as well as countless national monuments, national forests, and wildlife refuges. One of the best features of the entire series starts here, with Burns and Duncan chronicling the friendship of Muir and Roosevelt, and how this coupling was the spark needed to get things moving. These kinds of friendships based on mutual interest in conservation appear throughout the documentary, and are one of its most inspiring features.

Despite these qualities, Part 1 and Part 2 of the series fail to provide a signature Ken Burns segment: a stretch of several minutes you could show someone that makes them say something like "Wow. The national parks are really cool and important. The history is much more fascinating than I thought it would be."

I can only hope that if anyone is deterred by the slow start, they stick around for what comes next.

Parts 3 and 4 Chronicle the Rapid Expansion of National Parks and the Creation of the National Park Service

In Part 3, we finally get a tour de force Burns segment. In several effective minutes, Burns and Duncan explain how Hawai'i Volcanoes came to be a national park, and why the place is so special. We see an intersection of history, as the famous American author Mark Twain gets his break by writing about the area, and also understand the biological uniqueness of the place and the intangible inspiration that watching the formation of new land from spouting lava can create. The Hawaii segment is not actually representative of what Part 3 is really about though.

After Muir's death and Roosevelt's presidency we are introduced to Stephen Mather, a wealthy park advocate who becomes responsible for the management of national parks. He was also the main advocate of organizing the parks under a uniform government branch in what would become the National Park Service. Prior to its creation, the parks were administered by special military units, and were not bound by universal policies or laws.

Mather's attempts to cultivate positive press for the parks and draw more tourists to the new "system" of parks commences a new era, where public support and visitation to the parks grew considerably. We also see how the railroads were utilized to bring people to parks, and how commercial interests in the parks were still of tremendous potential detriment to a number of parks' futures. In Part 3 we thus begin to see the national parks in a more modern light, and by this time in history having more parks to discuss makes the documentary infinitely more interesting and balanced.

Part 4 is Burns at his best. With the invention of the automobile, the way Americans visit their national parks and care for them is transformed. We hear the stories of ordinary Americans more than we have before in the documentary. The most effective story told is one that unravels throughout the episode. It concerns a Nebraska couple who use their summers to visit national parks by train and then by car. The wife wrote a journal about their experiences and they took hundreds of photographs. We learn about their desire to see all of the parks, a trend of "collecting the parks" that is still alive and well today. Most of all, through her writings we understand the wife's disappointment at returning home to the mundanity of being a house wife, and then later a job. The message: parks are where she (and many other people) are happiest.

In the documentary's best chapter we also finally get a major story about ordinary Americans teaming up to protect the Smoky Mountains from logging. This occurrence is actually a bigger transition than it might sound like, because most of the prior parks had been created at the urging of the wealthy and powerful. Here we see once again how a friendship snowballed into a movement to protect the Smokies as a park.

In Part 4 we learn more about the origins of the park ranger profession. We also get a particularly gripping story about a couple who sought fame by traveling by boat down the Colorado River through the treacherous Grand Canyon. I will not say more about this remarkable and memorable segment except that it has eerie parallels to how some people tend to seek celebrity today.

There are also philosophically concise arguments made in Part 4 about parks and democracy, that elsewhere are not as well articulated. When put together, all of these elements make Part 4 the most engaging episode of any to watch.

Parts 5 & 6 Talk about the Ecology of Parks and the Addition of Historical Sites and Cultural Sites to the System

We finally get a long overdue set of chapters that are largely about the ecology of parks. You might have thought that parks were initially created to protect wildlife, but historically this was thought to be more of a secondary benefit. It's hard to believe, but Everglades National Park in Florida was the first national park set aside specifically to protect animals and plants. The year? 1947.

In Part 5 we also hear about the creation of Grand Teton National Park and Olympic National Park. But the chapter's most interesting is the segment about the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a government sponsored group that completed numerous public works projects throughout the national park system. The CCC was created by President Franklin Roosevelt as a means to create jobs and boost the economy during the Great Depression. If there's ever a better rationale for green jobs in a modern day context, it's the success story of the CCC.

There's also charm in how Part 5 embraces the idea of art's influence in conservation (which is also discussed throughout the series). We hear about a Japanese American artist who loves painting Yosemite. He is later imprisoned in a World War 2 internment camp, only to start giving informal painting classes as a means to survive the hardship. We also learn about Ansel Adams, and how a book of photos he took of California's Kings Canyon made their way to the President Franklin Roosevelt, and convinced him to make the area a national park. It's a pleasant reminder that anyone with a power for artistic expression can be influential.

Part 5 also discusses how the National Park Service expanded to include historical sites, national seashores, and cultural sites. Many of these sites were located in cities, with the idea being that the National Park Service could expand its fan base by having sites closer to where most Americans lived. Once again, Burns shows his genius in a segment about the Lincoln Memorial that starts in Part 5 and ends in Part 6. It symbolically shows history's overlap between the national park idea, and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

In Part 6 we get a satisfying conclusion to the series, that uses the story of wolf extirpation and reintroduction to Yellowstone as a means to reflect the conflict and changes in the history of our national parks. There's also time spent on the creation of large wilderness parks in Alaska, and how once again local feelings toward national park creation are not in sync with national ones. When the parks are ultimately created, Burns argues that the opposing Alaskans eventually came around to support the idea.

In a well-done but seemingly incongruous segment, we also get the story of Biscayne National Park's creation. I think the intention here was simply to illustrate how the first "ocean" park brought additional diversity to the park system, but this idea is not well expressed by the documentary, making it seem like a sort of an extraneous chronological add-on.

The final minutes are terrific. I wish Burns had ended on Duncan's wonderful family story rather than adding a few additional codas. They slightly diminish what would have otherwise been a perfect ending. If you watch the sixth episode, you will know what I mean.

Criticisms of the Series as a Whole

Before watching the documentary, I wrote on the Huffington Post that I wondered if the series would adequately discuss the unpleasant aspects of national parks, such as the forced removal of tribes and settlers from their lands. I am pleased to report that it does address this history adequately.

On the other hand, I also wrote that the documentary "might also suffer from having too many inarticulate or vague exaltations as to why national parks are important." This is in fact, the main problem as I see it with the documentary.

It seems that about every 5 or 10 minutes, Burns has one of his interviewed guests pontificating about the meaning of national parks. While this is certainly important, if you watch the whole series it becomes a grating annoyance. What I think is most likely is that Burns and Duncan realized that few people would watch the entirety of the documentary, and thus felt obliged to provide these repetitive segments. The problem is that sometimes these attempts to explain the meaning of national parks are not well articulated, or seem to appear out of context.

Another major problem is born of what I think is Burns and Duncan's implicit decision to portray the national park idea (America's best idea), as equivalent to the conservation movement. While probably not their intention, the U.S. Forest Service is to some extent demonized in the documentary. I can't help but wonder if people who work for the U.S. Forest Service will watch shaking their heads and protest the documentary's shallowness in addressing their role as conservationists.

It's perhaps Burns and Duncan's love of Muir and the idea of preserving America's great places that colors this oversight. The few mentions of people like Gifford Pinchot (the first head of the U.S. Forest Service) imply that Pinchot's belief that conservation included the rational use of natural resources while also protecting them was an inferior idea to creating national parks, preserved from any use more or less except tourism.

When I worked as a ranger at one park, a visitor who had once worked for the Forest Service explained to me how the Forest Service was about "conservation" and the Park Service was about "preservation." He went on to say that national parks are the "freaks." And he's right. It's their unique freak peculiarity which makes most of us more excited to visit a place like Yellowstone National Park than the Ocala National Forest. And this is where I personally believe a philosophical naivety permeates Burn's entire documentary.

While the national park idea might in fact be one of "America's Best Ideas," Burns gives all of 20 seconds to explain how it was exported to other countries. It's great that other countries also have national parks. But couldn't we hear more about how such a great American idea was employed by other countries?

It is also important to remember that both preservation and conservation of natural areas and resources is needed. Internationally speaking, the "National Park Idea" of strictly preserving wild areas with political boundaries is now rarely possible. And so I think that the National Park idea is sadly no longer very transferable to other places, even if Burns and Dayton woud like it to be so.

Perhaps what I am complaining about is beyond the scope of the documentary. After all, it is a documentary about the national parks, not the conservation movement at large. Perhaps Burns and Duncan also recognized this distinction but felt like it was impossible to reach too much into conservation in present day.

For all my criticisms, there are quite a number of terrific things about the National Parks: America's Best Idea.

What's Great about the Series

What I found to be the best aspect of Burns' documentary was his ability to tell the story of how diverse individuals from all walks of life, who had convictions about protecting natural areas from exploitation, were able to find like-minded friends and then wage successful campaigns to create national parks. This is inspirational.

The challenge of going up against big government bureaucracy and corporate interests has not changed any at all since the parks were created. It's a shining example of how individuals have power to change the world, and that even some of those people who have institutional power and wealth also are willing to take actions for the common good. In our modern time when it's easy to lose our inspiration for environmental causes, Burns gives us a wealth of examples of how hard work and persistence can pay off.

Beyond this inspirational aspect of the series, Burns succeeds in getting us to want to visit our national parks, and shows how memorable it can be to do so with our friends and family. It will be interesting to see if next summer there is a rise in park visitation because of Burns' documentary. If that comes to pass -- I can imagine Burns will be happy beyond belief that he is helping to broaden the constituency of people who visit, support, and fall in love with our national parks.

A Guide to Which Parks are Featured in Each Episode

For those people who are interested in seeing the segments about one of their favorite parks, here is a brief overview of which national parks are featured in each episode both as major and minor subjects based on my imperfect notes. Minor mentions usually constituted no more than 3-5 minutes of screen time. Anything that received about 30 seconds to 1 minute I did not record. Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite by far get the most air time.

If you have any additions or corrections, please post them in the comments section. For more information about the documentary or to watch a preview, click here.

Episode 1 (1851-1890)

Major: Yellowstone, Yosemite
Minor: Numerous

Episode 2 (1890-1915)

Major: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Mesa Verde
Minor: Crater Lake, Sequoia, Mount Rainer, Everglades, Grand Canyon, Chaco Canyon

Episode 3 (1915-1919)

Major: Denali, Acadia, Grand Canyon
Minor: Zion, Glacier, Hawai'i Volcanoes, Bryce, Olympic, Rocky Mountain

Episode 4 (1920-1933)

Major: Grand Canyon, Smoky Mountains, Grand Teton
Minor: Numerous

Episode 5 (1933-1945)

Major: Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Everglades, Yosemite, Lincoln Memorial
Minor: Big Bend, Kings Canyon

Episode 6 (1946- today)

Major: Alaska's parks, Biscayne, Grand Teton, Lincoln Memorial
Minor: Canyonlands, Guadelupe Mountains, Isle Royale, and Others

Photo Courtesy of Haynes Foundation Collection, Montana Historical Society via PBS