Ken Burns Goes Back to Nature on PBS

Sep 2, 2007  •  Post A Comment

In 2009, if recent TV history is any guide, America’s national parks are going to see a surge of visitors.

Documentarian Ken Burns’ next project is a nearly 15-hour history of World War II, airing later this month, but that one has been largely in the can for months.

At his Walpole, N.H., editing studio this summer, the filmmaker and his team have already turned their detailed attention to their next series, a six-part, 12-hour history of the country’s National Park system, to air sometime in 2009 on PBS.

Just as his landmark Civil War film in 1990 spurred tourism to battlegrounds both North and South, “The National Parks” is expected to create new interest in the 58 parks and numerous other monuments, memorials and historical sites that make up the vast park system.

The film includes Mr. Burns’ trademark elements—vintage still photographs, dramatic readings of old diaries and home movies, in this case from the Park Service’s first director, Stephen Mather—but is anchored by current photography from inside the parks. The so-called “live” footage is being culled from what is so far some 700 11-minute rolls of color Super 16 film that have been taken since shooting began in spring 2003, mostly in the dawn and sunset hours when the light is best.

At an August editing session, Mr. Burns, in jeans and T-shirt, pored over details of a section focused on the Grand Canyon. He noted at one point, “We’re feeling a little bit naked of music here,” and in another spot asked for more dramatic park footage.

Beautiful Backdrops

As lush as the photography is, the producers said they aren’t straying from the historical approach. “This is not a nature film and it’s not a travelogue. It’s a human history of an American idea and the people involved in it. It just also happens to have as its backdrop the most stunning places on Earth,” said Dayton Duncan, Mr. Burns’ longtime collaborator, who is the writer and producer of the film as well as the author of the companion book.

The program takes a chronological approach to its topic, beginning in the mid-1800s when white explorers began to send back dispatches from spectacular sites out west. Middle episodes examine how the concept of national parks moved from west to east and broadened to include conservation goals as new parks were designated, the debate over whether it was acceptable to put a dam in park land, the influx of visitors following the decision to allow cars inside the parks and the Depression-era enhancements with the arrival of the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps. The final episode covers the period through the 1980 addition of seven great swaths of Alaska and the growth of the environmental movement.

“We’re historians, not journalists,” said Mr. Duncan. “We need time to look back.”

Laced throughout are stories of President Theodore Roosevelt camping at Yosemite with the writer and preservationist John Muir and the travelogue of a Japanese couple who fell in love with Mount Rainier. Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling provide guided tours. The filmmakers are still waiting to see what average Americans have dug up among their home movies after an open call for submissions.

Viewers of the film, Mr. Duncan said, will have two misconceptions shattered: “That the parks have always been there and that they are sort of a self-perpetuating government program. One thing that becomes very clear is that they only exist through the passion and dedication of individual Americans, and their protection relies on that as well.”

Although the project explores the political fights that shaped the park system, “We’re not politicians,” said Mr. Duncan. “It’s safe to say, we think the national parks are a pretty damn good idea.”

He added: “I hope that Americans’ appreciation of these great treasures will be enhanced.”

The Burns team put together an unusual arrangement with the National Park Service in lieu of paying the daily license fees that are normally required of filmmakers. In exchange for a one-time permit to film as needed in all the parks, the documentarians agreed to give the NPS, once the project is completed, all the tapes and transcripts of all the interviews they conducted, as well as a digital database of the 11,000 still images amassed, only a small fraction of which will be used in the film.

“A lot of this is going to be very valuable to them,” Mr. Duncan said, adding that the arrangement was struck mostly for logistical rather than financial reasons, so that each time the producers wanted to film they wouldn’t have to start the process of getting a permit anew.

By the time the film is finished, Mr. Duncan said, the team is expected to have filmed in 51 of the 58 parks. (Parks that haven’t been filmed include Wind Cave in South Dakota and South Carolina’s Congaree Swamp National Monument.) Mr. Duncan himself will have visited all but the National Park of American Samoa, and, he said, he is contemplating a trip there “just so I can say I have gone to every one.”


  1. The time my father served in the CCCs was the happiest, most growthful experience of his life. Needless to say, he was from a poor family, married with one child and had a kidney problem which kept him from the regular armed services. His CCC experience sent him to parts of this country that he would not have otherwise seen and he loved that exposure. It is from him that I have gained, experienced, and appreciated the beauty and vastness of our country. He was assigned to a unit in Van Buren, MO. I also know he travelled across the country, to Whitehorse and eventually to Alaska where he worked on the Alaska highway. I don’t know if this Alaska time was part of the CCCs or if it was through private contractors. I have photographs, a few memories of his recounts, and would give anything to sit down with him and listen to his stories. He died in 1992 of lung cancer. I would like to give those photos to you.
    One thing you may want to know, he was not proud of his service in the CCC, despite his personal pleasure in the natural world to which he would not otherwise have been exposed. He was ashamed and I believe he felt marked as somehow inferior to the men who served in the regular armed services. I marvelled at the stories he told, at his mouton gloves, his woolen longjohns, but when I took his photos to school in the early 1950’s I was shamed by my teacher because these were photographs from the CCCs — not the real army.
    If you would accept the materials I have, it would be the most fitting tribute to the service my father did give his country. I will do whatever it takes to make these photos, personal correspondence, etc., available to you. I have tremendous respect for the history you are preserving. Sandy Stahl, daughter of Louis Richard “Red” Stahl, 636-391-9990.

  2. Sleep of the blessed. Dreams of the National Park System have always been Teddy Roosevelts primary motive!
    God Bless them and what they do!
    I want burns to do a project on art in America and what it has meant since 2000

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