National Press Club

Ken Burns: Parks Define Americans as a People

October 30, 2009 | By Ken Dalecki |

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Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns told a well-attended luncheon audience Sept. 28 that he hopes his latest series on creation of the National Park system will boost park attendance, particularly by African Americans and Hispanic Americans, to help build an expanded constituency for the preservation and restoration of the nation's most beautiful and historic sites.

"Our national parks are a defining part of who we are as a people," Burns said during an appearance in conjunction with the release of one of his documentaries. a six-part, 12-hour series on the national parks that debuted on public broadcast stations Sunday.

Burns first appeared at the Club in 1990 to discuss his Civil War series, the first of his Public Broadcasting System projects.

He announced that transcripts of interviews for the national parks series, 1,200 images and other research material developed over what he called a 10-year labor of love will be turned over to the National Park Service. He lauded the NPS and Interior Department for their cooperation in developing the series whose screenplay was written by co-producer Dayton Duncan.

"At the heart of the national park idea is the democratic notion that the most magificent and sacred places in our nation belong to everyone," Burns said. "And from the very start, people of all backgrounds, rich and poor, well known and unknown, have been involved in the evolution of the park idea. We wanted to find them and tell their stories."

Burns said the main effort from now until the NPS' centennial in 2016 should be on park restoration. He said he would like to see land now administered by the Department of Agriculture added to adjoining national parks to expand the range of wildlife and he urged the elevation of Dinosaur and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah to national park status.

The filmmaker said "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" features more than 50 characters who shaped the history of the national parks, including ethnic minorities in hopes of increasing increased interest in the parks system by members of those communities.

"We're hopeful that new generations of Americans will discover our parks, embrace them, and pass them on to their children as part of their heritage," he said. He called the park system "the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape."

Burns noted that creation of some parks had to overcome significant local opposition. "Americans' inclination is to look at a river and think 'dam.'" But once established, the parks become local as well as national treasures. He said U.S. parks preserve the nation's geologic, ethnic, cultural and military history, including shortcomings such as slavery and displacement of native Americans.

He gave a sneak preview of other projects he is working on, including a follow-up to his baseball series titled "The 10th Inning," a history of prohibition, a history of the Roosevelts (Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor), a history of the Dust Bowl and a review of the racially charged New York Central Park jogger rape case of 1989.