Brief Thoughts on Ken Burns’ National Parks

I managed to see all of the episodes of Ken Burns’ documentary, The National Parks, thanks to going on vacation and getting back to the hotel at the right time, and judicious visits and a sleepover at My Friends the Olsons™.
So, some thoughts on the series…


Clocking at at around 11 and a half hours, Ken Burns’ The National Parks: America’s Best Idea is very much in the same line as Burns’ previous documentaries:
–Strong use of archival material, photograph, recordings
–Reliance on descendants and relatives of historical and other figures in the narrative
–Commentary by respected historians and experts in the field
–Lots of almost “stunt level” voicework by Hollywood actors. Tom Hanks, John Lithgow, Carolyn McCormick, George Takei, Andy Garcia and others
TNP is not so much about the scenery pr0n (and there is, as much as there was, less than Scott, Fe and I actually thought there would be) but its about the evolution of the idea of the National Parks, starting with Lincoln, and progressing all the way through the 20th century and to the 21st. We meet many of the historical figures who had a hand, for better or worse in making the Parks possible, and how they evolved.
The series is not without flaws though. The scenery pr0n has a very prominent focus on Yosemite, even when the series for the most part moves on to other parks and history, images of Yosemite keep cropping up. Scott and I agreed that its a consequence of Burns’ modus operandi–he likes to use archival material from people when there is a wealth of material to be had. Given Yosemite’s proximity to population centers, this makes sense. There are LOTS of photographs of Yosemite, even more than Yellowstone.
Still, Scott and I came up with a “drinking game”–to take a drink every time a shot of Yosemite appears. Even in the last episode, where Alaska and Florida got a lot of focus, we still could get sloshed because of the gratuitous Yosemite shots in the program. Granted, Yosemite is a pretty park, but it got a little ridiculous by the end.
I learned a lot, including unexpected nuggets of information. For example, the President can no longer make National Monuments (something he can do by Executive Act) in the state of Wyoming. Why? The series will tell you! The complicated history of the Parks and the men and women was enlightened for me.
Scott and I agreed that the series is not one we’d want to own and return to again and again–not quite enough scenery pr0n to justify it. On the other hand, should YOU see the series, once? Yes. Yes, you should. Like much of Burns oeuvre, his documentary filmmaking is essential to understanding America.
And now I want to figure out what National Park I want to see next. Granted, this series makes me really want to see Yosemite for myself (and the fact that one friend and one friend/coworker have or are going to see it soon is impetus, too…)
Anyway, so what National Parks have I seen?
Well, as far as full National Parks are concerned:
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Yellowstone National Park
Grand Teton National Park
Badlands National Park
Glacier National Park
Wind Cave National Park
National Monuments? (Created by the Executive Branch)
Castle Clinton
Ellis Island
Federal Hall
Governor’s Island
Statue of Liberty
Jewel Cave
Pipestone
Devil’s Tower
Other National Park areas:
Gateway National Recreation Area
Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
NJ Pinelands National Reserve
Lincoln Memorial
Jefferson Memorial
National Mall
Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington Monument
Minuteman Missile
Mt. Rushmore
John D Rockefeller Jr Memorial Parkway
St Croix River National Scenic Riverway
Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
In 1970, Congress realized how confusing the nomenclature was and amended the 1916 National Park Service Organic Act, to say all units of the system — regardless of their formal name — have equal legal standing.