He’s been to War, played Baseball and Jazz, and profiled individuals as diverse as Mark Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, Thomas Jefferson and Lewis & Clark in his in-depth documentaries. Now filmmaker Ken Burns turns his lens on our national parks in a PBS 12-hour, six-part film that showcases these natural wonders and chronicles how they came to be. 

“If there were no National parks, the Grand Canyon would be lined with mansions and none of us would have access,” points out Burns, who once again teamed up with writer and co-producer Dayton Duncan to profile people who figured in the history of the parks. Narrated by Peter Coyote and featuring first-person voices by Tom Hanks, Andy Garcia, John Lithgow, Sam Waterston and others, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea premieres on PBS Sept. 27, with a companion book now in stores. Burns spoke to MNN about the project.

MNN: With such an extensive national parks system, how did you choose what to include?

Burns: We're telling a narrative that begins with the natural national parks and follows the evolution of ideas and the stories of compelling individuals. And not wanting to be an encyclopedia, we don't feel compelled to list every single one. We show at least an image of every one of the 58 natural national parks. It is a system that has 391 units in it. Manzanar, a place where Japanese-American citizens were interned during the Second World War, is a National Park Service site. Andersonville, the bloody Civil War prison site, is a unit of the National Park Service, as is Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, where in 1957 the crisis of school desegregation crystallized. We have Oklahoma City, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, Washita and Sand Creek on the Great Plains, where United States military cavalrymen murdered mostly unarmed Native American women and children. While most of the natural national parks are not mentioned, all of them are seen. Many of them are given extended treatments. We come back again and again to Yellowstone and Yosemite, five or six or seven or 10 times. We felt that these were the emblematic stories.

Why was it important to tell personal stories?

If it's just one beauty shot after another, there's a kind of monotony and you shut down. The drama is in the people, the heroes of the parks and the complicated narrative stories of very interesting and diverse people.

Of all the parks, which made the most vivid impressions?

The first time I went to Grand Canyon my jaw dropped and then every subsequent trip it gets better and better. I’ve been back four or five times. North Cascades on the border of Canada is amazing because it’s wilderness, a tumble of glaciers, and I love Yosemite. The first major shoot we did for this project in the spring of 2003 was at Yosemite. I think that Yosemite is maybe be the most beautiful place on Earth.


What were the biggest logistical and creative challenges of the project?

We froze in 40 degrees below zero at Yellowstone in the wintertime. We broiled in Death Valley, and fought off chiggers. But actually it’s the management of which stories stay and which don’t that’s the toughest thing.

You visited Shenandoah National Park as a boy. What do you remember?

I was 6 years old in 1959 when my mother was dying of cancer and our household was a demoralized place. No catches in the backyard, no ball games. But one day after school my father took me from our home in Delaware to his home in Baltimore and woke me up in the middle of the night and took me to Virginia and the top of the Skyline Drive that runs down the spine of Shenandoah National Park. That was the first and only road trip with my dad. I can remember the songs he sang and the hikes we took, and how his hand felt in mine. The songs I sang to my three daughters are songs I learned on this trip. So for me, Shenandoah, which is relatively small and doesn’t have the spectacular aspects, is the best. Everybody we met along the way has a memory like that.

What challenges do the parks face today?

The most immediate one is renewal and restoration. There was eight years of neglect and it will cost $750 million just to bring it up to snuff. The threats are environmental and political. There’s a real possibility that within our lifetime one of the most beautiful parks will be known as the park formally known as Glacier National Park and that will be a sad thing indeed. We cannot be complacent. We have to go and kick the tires of our properties, go and see who is taking care of them.

What do you want people to take away?

The thing that we hope more than anything else is that there are traffic jams at Yellowstone and Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. When nobody comes there are no constituents arguing and no renewal and no one to prevent that person or group that wants to make the park a little smaller or put a power plant outside of it. We want every park superintendent angry at us because they have so many people coming.

What do you do to reduce your own carbon footprint?

We did a garden this year, we compost. Most of the vegetables I’ve had this summer have been from our garden. We grow green leaf, Boston, red leaf and romaine lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, squash, endive, garlic, onion and leeks. I have an old car that gets good mileage but my next will be a hybrid.

What projects are you planning next?

We’re halfway through editing The Tenth Inning, continuing the Baseball series. We’re beginning to edit a three-part, six-hour history of prohibition. We’re beginning shooting History of the Dust Bowl, and I’m working with my daughter and her husband on a film about the Central Park jogger case. We’re doing a series on the age of the Roosevelts. This is all God- and funding-willing.

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MNN homepage photo: QT Luong/terragalleria.com

America’s national parks get the royal treatment in new documentary
In our interview with filmmaker Ken Burns, he tells us the story behind his new film, what he grows in his home garden, and why he wants park rangers to be mad