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Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan present us with National Parks: Americans Best Idea,  which will air on PBS this Fall, along with the release of a beautiful 400 page illustrated coffee table book chronicling the same story as the series. 

Ken burns


Filmed over the course of more than six years at some of nature's most spectacular locales — from Acadia to Yosemite, Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon, the Everglades of Florida to the Gates of the Arctic in Alaska — The National Parks: America's Best Idea is nonetheless a story of people: people from every conceivable background — rich and poor; famous and unknown; soldiers and scientists; natives and newcomers; idealists, artists and entrepreneurs; people who were willing to devote themselves to saving some precious portion of the land they loved, and in doing so reminded their fellow citizens of the full meaning of democracy. It is a story full of struggle and conflict, high ideals and crass opportunism, stirring adventure and enduring inspiration - set against the most breathtaking backdrops imaginable.


The national park system is something distinctly American, “a treasure house of nature’s superlatives.” Our country has contributed more than just fast food and soap operas to the world, we gave it the concept of national parks, the idea that certain areas are just too unique to be spoiled by man.  The first park was Yellow Stone, established in 1872, and today, there are 376 national parks covering an estimated 86 million acres. 

Ken Burns


Ken Burns has been producing films for over 30 years, and is one of very few documentarians to ever become a household name. He has achieved major success with documentaries such as Civil War, and Hortios Drive, and Lewis and Clark. A technique he developed to bring still photos to life is known in the film world as the “Burns Effect”. quite a tribute for any man.


His co-producer on this project is Dayton Duncan, the author of nine books who has also been a consultant on Burns’ Civil War, Baseball and Jazz documentaries, as well as the writer and producer of Lewis and Clark.


Shelton Johnson is a park ranger of 22 years, wo also plays a large role in this series. But it was never intended to be that way.


Duncan explains, “As a result of our film, and we've had some talks with people within the park service, they will recognize what we saw in Shelton, who was a guy that we originally interviewed to talk about the Buffalo Soldiers, the original protectors of Yosemite and Sequoia.  But as we do with all people that we interview, we ask larger, wide-ranging questions, and we recognized within four or five minutes that he had a lot more to say than the story of the African-American buffalo soldiers and is a great, eloquent spokesperson for what the parks stand for and mean.”  

Ken Burns


Some may think this is ‘just’ another PBS special, but the series is so much more. It is the history of who we are as a country, and our often troubled and often in hindsight mistakes along the way.  Except that this is something that is solely ours as a country, and something that we mostly did right from the beginning.


National Parks explores the events from1851 through roughly 1980, though it hints at the 90’s, 00’s and the future, and the history of these great parks is the main focus of this exquisite look at our national treasures.  


Burns told us about why he chose these years to stay between. “You know, our business is history. History's about stories that are over. As you know, our film begins in 1851 when the Mariposa Battalion rode into Yosemite to exterminate the Indians, and it ends in 1980.  It does go forward not only into the '90s, but also into a future in which we discuss things, but that is impressionistic, and that has always been our desire in all the films that we do that come up more or less to the present.”  


Ken Burns

“It's interesting, though, that all of the contemporary issues that we debate and argue about have historical antecedents. I was just saying a few moments ago that it's not so much that there's cycles of history as some historians like to popularize.  It's just that human nature is the same,” he continues. 


“One thing that was on our mind was how does this compare to the real thing, can it ever live up to the actual parks themselves, can that beauty ever be captured?”


“You know, by all means, choose real experience.  But if you need an amanuensis to get you to the decision to make that leap into real experience, you get it – or a painting by Bierstadt, a photograph by Ansel Adams -- and we hope our film can do that. And we're looking forward to, just as at Gettysburg, their attendance spiked 200, 300 percent and stayed there for years and years and years as the series ignited people's wanting to go back -- we hope so too that that's the kind of response we'll get here.”


Watch for The National Parks: America’s Best Idea on Sunday, September 27 at 8pm on PBS! / Issue 100 - September 2018
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