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A Conversation With Ken Burns on The National Parks: America's Best Idea



Ken Burns does not sit quietly during an interview. Highly animated, expressive with his hands and moving from sitting to squatting then back to sitting, the filmmaker is as entertaining as his projects. During an interview that lasted 30 minutes, maybe 40, he packed more into the discussion than space normally would allow in one story. So here's the transcript from our meeting in the lobby of a Salt Lake City hotel in late August.

Why the national parks as a subject?

“I’ve been making documentary films for the last 30, 35 years, and each one of them has asked a deceptively simple question: Who are we? Who are those strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans? I think that what could be a better revealing subject of our best selves than the national parks? For the first time in human history, land was set aside not for kings, or nobleman or the rich but for everyone and for all time. Specifically, the project was brought to me by my long-time collaborator Dayton Duncan and co-producer and writer extraordinaire. And it took me about a nano-second to say of course.

"He and I had done films on the American West, on Lewis and Clark, on Mark Twain, and a humorous look at the first cross-country automobile trip, so we’ve, our DNA is, together, out there in the wild places of America and so much of who we are, both in our mythology and in our actuality is formed in these places, and it just seemed a logical thing to pursue.The great sub-themes of the United States: our race, which I deal with in every film and I think to some extent space, how we configure ourselves, how we travel, and how we were the first to move about.”

Do you see the national parks movement as a capitalist movement?

“I think what’s so interesting is the film we made is not a travelogue. When I’ve spoken to people over the last ten years -- and we’ve been working on it for ten years -- they go, 'Oh, Teddy Roosevelt.' Or they think it’s a travelogue, or a nature film, and we’ve been trying to say this is a history, and the history is really complicated, and incredibly diverse, and yes, the original impulse for the national parks I think is spiritual. The next impulse is conservation, the next is patriotic, the next one is sort of economic development. It’s only recently that we’ve begun to add the complex ecological and environmental motivations that are part of our conversation today.

"But at each juncture, the parks have always, the supporters of the parks, have always had strange bedfellows. From the very beginning the railroads were part and parcel of delivering an elite clientele to these places. But god bless them. The original impulse was that spiritual 'slash' democratic. That this was the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape, and Americans got it from the very beginning. The rich Americans got it from the very beginning. And while it offered certain opportunities, shall we say, that tested the fragility of these places on the parts of railroads and others, nonetheless it was permitted to grow into something that has continued to expand.

“Now I travel all around thanks to the Evelynn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund to inner-city schools talking to African-American and Hispanic-American school kids and people in the community and show them heroes of the national parks that look and sound like them. This was not just the old benevolent white guy story.”

Do they get it?

“Oh man, if you walk in there with Shelton Johnson, who is a 6-foot-plus-3 park ranger in his hat and you’ve got some impressionable fifth-graders in a Hispanic school in inner-city Miami, man, they go crazy. This guy grew up in inner-city Detroit, he knows that. There are too many constituencies that do not yet feel an ownership of the parks and we thought it part of our expanded mission. We wanted to make a good film, tell good stories, and that’s what I think we’ve done.

“But part of the public television/PBS mandate is to go out and find, dust off the areas that don’t yet experience these things. And so I think we’ve just been so pleased to go out into these communities and sort of sing the gospel of not just the story of white benevolence, not just of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller Jr., and the rich PR guy Steven Mather who morphs into the first Park Service director, but people that are black and brown and red and yellow and female and unknown. As well as white and male and known. That’s a thrilling, naturally occurring, not politically correct, but naturally occurring story when you scratch the surface of the national parks."

Do you hope your film taps some future advocates for the parks?

“This is an exercise in civics as much as it is in conservation, or the environment, or anything. This was this unique compact that we are all co-owners of some of the most beautiful places in the world. And ownership suggests only modest, in this case, responsibilities. Go out and visit your property. Make sure it’s being taken care of. That is, be a good constituent of them, and make sure they’re being taken care of for future generations.”

You couldn't cover all 391 units of the park system. Was that a problem?

“No. We’ve always known that good story-telling has to respect the negative space of creation. Just like that sculptor who imports that block of marble into the studio and she has to carve away. That rubble on the floor is not bad stuff, it’s just not what’s in it. We in no way wish to be encyclopedic. You can go on line and in two clicks you can find a list all 391 units, the 58 ‘natural,’ full-fledged national parks. We’ve got an image from each one of those 58 in the film. But we don’t try to tell every single story of them, nor do we of course try to tell all the stories of the other parks. What we talk is the evolution of an idea as seen through the eyes of 50 or more of the historical figures that we introduce to you. Some of them known, like Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir and John D. Rockefeller, and most of them very much unknown to most Americans. And that’s the thrilling part of it.

“As such we return again and again and again to central and important places, like Yosemite. The first time huge tracts were set aside for somebody. It was given originally to the state of California. To Yellowstone, the world’s first national park only because in 1872 there was only Wyoming Territory, no entity to give it to, so it became, accidentally, the world’s first national park. The Grand Canyon and several other seminal places.

"But in the course of use we begin to understand that these places stand in for ideas that we begin to save. Just like America. If it’s the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape. Let me try to make my proof here. Thomas Jefferson said all men are created equal. He meant all white men of property, free of debt. If you asked him to be specific, we’d be in a whole, whole mountain of trouble today. But he wasn’t. So all of American history in a larger sense is continuing to enlarge that.

"The parks start out saving spectacular natural scenery: the highest free-falling waterfall on the continent, the greatest collection of geysers on the planet, and the grandest canyon on Earth. That’s pretty obvious stuff. And then we move on and we begin to save archaeological sites. Places that show the Ancient Puebloan cultures that occupied particularly the Southwest of our country. We move on in the time of the Depression where paradoxically the parks thrive as never before, benefiting from FDR’s shovel-ready stimulus dollars of the New Deal through the Civil Conservation Corps. We begin to add historical sites. After that we’re interested in places of environmental diversity. Habitats like the Everglades that don’t necessarily suggest a kind of 'spectacularness' to them unless you change your definition of what the spectacular is.
“So the park idea is evolving. And now we’ve added monuments. We have the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore seem obvious, but we have Manzanar, where Japanese-Americans were interred during the Second World War. Shamelessly. Central High School. A working, inner-city high school still to this day in Little Rock, Arkansas, where in 1957 the crisis of desegregation crystalized, is a unit of the national park system, as is [sic] Oklahoma City, the site of the greatest act of domestic terrorism, as is Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where United 93 went down.

“We are a good enough country, this represents so much the best of us that we are willing to look at not just a complicated past, but in some cases the shameful aspects of our past and say, ‘This needs to be looked at too. And we honor that. If we don’t list them all, we give a sense of the complexity and the diversity of these things. And to me, if you’re inviting people in, and that’s what story-telling is, that’s better than reading the phone book.”

You spent 10 years on the project, shooting for six. Lots has transpired with the National Park Service, and National Park System. You had mentioned Stephen Mather's National Parks Portfolio that he presented to Congress. Is part of your intention to alert Congress to the needs of the parks?

“Very much so. We just want to start off with this simple, but it’s not so simple, but maybe the clear objective of just telling a good story. in this case six episodes over 12 hours. And I think we’ve done that, and the response to the film has been as great as any film we’ve ever done, and we’re thrilled by that. But yes, we’ve become, and in a sense have always been, evangelists for the larger purpose of the parks. That we hope that this will be a huge call to arms for those people who are concerned that the last eight years have represented a neglect of the parks, that we’ve now accumulated an $8-billion-plus backlog of necessary maintenance to get them up, that our real mission over the next few years will be restoration as the writer Terry Tempest Williams suggests in the last moments of our film. And that we hope that the film can be used and exploited by those who wish to get the best possible results from the upcoming centennial celebration.

"... The story that I’m fond of telling, and you’ve probably read it, that when I finished the Civil War, in 1990 it was broadcast, I was walking a few years later across the lawn of the visitor’s center at Gettysburg Battlefield, and the superintendent reached over and picked up a Popsicle wrapper that was on the lawn, conspicuously there, and waved it in my face with a twinkle in his eye and said, ‘It’s all your fault.’ His attendance had gone up 200, 300 percent and stayed there for years as a result of our series.

"I hope every superintendent is quote, 'mad,' unquote at me, because a great democratic problem to have, although in the late '70s, '80s, launched a great deal of philosophical introspection, that is to say, were the parks being loved to death? And anybody’s who’s been frustrated by traveling hundreds if not thousands of miles to get out into nature and finding themselves in traffic down in Yellowstone knows that frustration These are good problems to have in a democracy because we are at this extreme existential crisis right now, at this moment. Which is, if existentialism is a tension between being and doing, the virtual world that so many of us inhabit, including our children, is neither.

"As a kid who grew up in a development in Delaware, from 2 to 9, and tumbled out of the house every day at 8 o’clock and didn’t come back except for lunch and then dinner, most kids (today) spend all their time inside, watching television, surfing the net, texting their friends, updating their Facebook, tweeting, whatever it is, and they have no relationship with nature.

"And those iconic trips that we used to have as kids, that are part of our DNA, that formed our sense of our deepest relationships with ourselves and our parents, at the highest emotional level, aren’t happening as easily as they did. It’s harder to pile the kids into the mini-van than it was the station-wagon and make those big, long tours of the Western parks or the Eastern parks. And so I hope because the story we told is not just a historical chronology of the evolution of an idea, and these interesting people, but that each one of them was themselves transformed down to their very core as human beings by experiences they could have only had out in these wild places, that the people we interviewed to help tell these stories had those experiences and were insistent on sharing them, quite apart from the narrative that we were trying to wrangle, and that we ourselves as filmmakers going out into these in some cases sacred if not saved places, transformed our lives. We hope some of that brushes off on folks.

Which individuals from you research stood out to you?

“Muir is the god of it all. This is the man who was able to find in the national parks the sponsorship of the highest ideals I think we Americans have ever had, and he gave them back to us, and he vaulted into my pantheon of the top ten Americans that I’ve had the privilege to meet in the course of 35 years of making documentary films. I’m talking Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jackie Robinson, Lewis Armstrong. His character, his heart, his art, his ability to write and express himself and just his sheer ‘is-ness.' This wonderful, loping figure in the parks, in Yosemite who could just be transformed by nature but then find the language to remind us all of what we are missing and what we possibly could lose if these places weren’t set aside. He’s the bee’s knees.”

Do you think Muir had tremendous foresight?

“You read his stuff today and you feel that you’re dealing not only with a kind of Emersonian spiritualism, that great transcendental American thing that’s ecumenical and very much rooted in democracy, that you can find god the way that you felt it, in the cathedrals of nature and not by following some dogmatic devotion in cathedrals built by the hand of man. That was Muir. But at the same time, you’re dealing with a scientist whose writings also prefigure all of our most complex ecological and environmental issues that we talk about today. And that’s why for us as filmmakers, historical filmmakers, people always want us to, ‘Do you talk about snowmobiles in Yellowstone, do you talk about global warming.’ Don’t have to. Every single thing is mirrored and replicated in all the other stuff, you know. John Muir himself knew that the parks desperately needed constituents, understood the democratizing effect the automobiles would have to be able to escape the specific gravity of your railroads that were attracting only an elite clientele by the very nature of the amount of money that was required to buy the ticket from the east Coast and take the Grand Tour.

“The car opened it up, but he worried that the horseless carriage would mingle its gas breath with the cool air of the pines and the waterfalls.”

In the late 1800s, the 'blue bloods' came out to the parks. So how democratic were they?

“Very, because those blue bloods recognized the essential democracy of it. It was the Theodore Roosevelts, and the Charles Sheltons, and the John D. Rockefellers Jr. who were not doing it for themselves. It was a kind of counter-intuitive process. It may have been in the early days only ... by an elite, but that elite that was sponsoring the parks were doing it for everybody in a way that you don’t see philanthropy even today happening at a grassroots levels. That’s not true. Bill Gates devotes tens of billions of dollars to alleviate hunger and disease around the world."

You took ten years of work. Do you think the government realizes the value of the parks?

“I think that the mechanism of making parks and protecting parks is as so many other things -- health care is our current obvious example -- a lugubrious process in a democracy like ours. In which it’s never about getting the whole thing, there are always competing interests. We have to really appreciate that the parks represent a kind of going against, a kind of momentum of humankind. We’re extractive and inquisitive -- some would even say rapacious -- in nature. So to stop that, to say 'No, no no, that river doesn’t need a dam,' to say, 'No, no, no, that’s a beautiful stand of trees, stop thinking board feet,' is a hard thing to arrest. So for every impulse there is a counter impulse. And every time you want to save the Grand Canyon, Theodore Roosevelt found time and time again there’s going to be a special interest that says no.

“So I think that results in periods in our history when the parks have a less centrality, and other times when they expand with great gusto and enthusiasm, as they did under Roosevelt, as they did under his cousin Franklin, as they did under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, as they did under the Carter administration."

Did you take note of the park system's warts?

“I come away with a concern based on the fact that you see that it’s a little grey around the edges, because of this backlog, and that we do know that the attendance has flattened out a bit because of this virtual distractions of so much of the population. I don’t think that’s long-term, but that’s a concern that I have. At the same time, I don’t think there was a day out in the parks that I wasn’t just continually stunned by the goodness of the rangers, the beauty of the places, and we’d like to say, myself included, I’m just as guilty, that these are places where you can see exactly how it was 150 years ago when John Muir saw it or even 7,000 years ago when the ancestors of the native peoples who were driven out saw it.

“But in point of fact, what you actually see is man’s relationship to the landscape in a way that you don’t see it in any other place. when you see a spectacular boardwalk at Cuyahoga State Park [sic] hug the contours of a ravine that will eventually reveal after many steps up, and platforms across, and steps down, a cataract of small but spectacular beauty. You see the Going-to-the-Sun highway at Glacier. You realize that you’re also celebrating man’s relationship to this. Not just that you’re keeping it pure, and we do. We have wonderful wilderness parks. I’m not trying to engage that wilderness debate. I’m just saying there's something really exciting to me about realizing that Ansel Adams took his beautiful view of Yosemite Valley from the same place the buses disgorge people at Inspiration Point."

What do you hope comes out of this film?

“I remember the big debate in film school in the early '70s was whether films actually made people do something, or if they just preached to the converted. The cynicism of that day suggested, and I lost out, that it was just preaching to the converted. But the first film I made as an adult was on the Brooklyn Bridge. It went on PBS, and some couple in Idaho saw it and decided to take their vacation in New York and the first thing they did was take their kids and walk over the Brooklyn Bridge and told them how it got built.

“That's what I hope. We know from the whole history of the parks, and the writings and the art of Thomas Moran, and Bierstadt and the Rocky Mountain School, the photographs of Ansel Adams and Jackson and all the others, that art can do things and move people. Franklin Roosevelt helped to create Kings Caynon. He was a paraplegic. He’d never be able to visit this roadless wilderness, but he understood... What you hope in the end is that art brings people out to these places and that the only wish we have is that more Americans will come.”


Did you audio record it? Would be cool to listen to as sort of a National Parks Traveler podcast.



Actually, we'll have the podcast loaded Sunday!

The podcast is a great feature: thanks!

You might edit "Katy" to "Cady" in Elizabeth Katy Stanton

Very interesting interview, Kurt!

Really good interview! i especially like that you asked about the capitalist aspect of the parks.

Thanks for posting it!

Thanks bfp. Check back tomorrow for the podcast.

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