Reader Participation Day: So, What Do You Think of the Ken Burns Film So Far?

We're at the halfway mark of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. So what do you think? Has Ken Burns pulled off another masterpiece, or do you find it lacking in some regards?

Are you going to order your own personal DVD of the show, wonder what wound up on the cutting room floor, or pass on the three remaining episodes? If you're only a frequent park goer, is this series making you think more highly of the national parks and what they offer?


I love the history aspect of the film. it so far brings everything home. I do plan on ordering a copy of this film. so far I have to put it up with his other masterpieces. great job Mr. Burns!!!!

This is very exciting, informative and inspiring. I will order the DVD. Ken Burns always raises the bar, and has done so again. A new respect for our National Parks, and the devotion to keep them intact.

it is great,yes i will buy the dvd,mr. burns has done a really good job in explaning how the parks were brought into the gov.,and his story of john muir were really good,i didnt know a thing about muir before,now i am really in awe of him...

It is not what I expected, but I am really enjoying it. It has the right balance of scenery and history. I have learned a number of things I did not know, despite visiting most of the parks featured.
Saving the $99 and recording my own DVD!

I don't know if I just have unrealistic expectations when it comes to Ken Burns, or have already read too much of the history, but so far, I'm not particularly impressed. I feel he has missed or glossed over so many poignant stories that help visitors/viewers connect to the parks from their perspectives (an important aspect of park interpretation) rather than what 'we' want them to experience.

For example, I also would have liked a little more time devoted to the context of Teddy Roosevelt's parks work within the extreme political and business corruption of the day, even going against those of his own party and social status--another great interpretive lesson for today's Americans.

I think Burns missed an important opportunity to inspire many Americans by avoiding saying Mather was mostly likely bi-polar. (Albright admitted this in his 1980’s book, The Missing Years.) The story would have been much more powerful if Burns had explained Mather's tremendous passion and energy followed by 'break downs' in this context. It’s inspirational for everyone, but especially those struggling with mental illness or even the stress and depression that have accompanied current hard times.

However, I was glad Burns addressed Mather's willingness to make "deals with the devil"--i.e, railroads and business interests, including wealthy industrialists--in order to gain the legislative support the parks so desperately needed. That's is a good lesson for park advocates who are often dismissive or too suspicious of business interests, as well as a good role model (and hopefully inspiration) for business leaders of today.

Also left out was much of the context of what the country was dealing with when the Park Service was created, yet it's very relevant to today's audiences. There was recession, serious food shortages, and the world was involved in the scariest thing it had ever faced, the War to End All Wars. Yet in the middle of all that, there was enough public support for the parks idea to create the Parks Service. It was a time when people really struggled on a personal level with the move from a rural and agricultural life, where they were tied to the land, to factory work and industrialized life. We are still trying to figure all this out today, so focusing on that for a few minutes could have been very influential.

I would have liked it if Burns had included a but more about the women behind the men behind the parks, especially Albright’s wife. The story of Allbright’s truggle between courtship vs. Mather and the parks, his working honeymoon where he and his bride bundled in blankets on a caboose as he read geology to her as they passed lands that would become parks, followed by her endless volunteer hours in support of his dreams is a great story for couples who help fulfill each other's dreams or work on public issues together.

I also would have preferred to see more national park rangers (current and retired) used than so-called 'writers'. First, no one can talk about the parks and what they represent, or displays more passion for them than the rangers. Second, their public image is second only to Santa Claus with the American public, so their words would carry more weight, have more influence, than ‘writers.’
That said, I think the African-American ranger has done a fine job, and the choice of an African-American--a part of the American demographic under-represented in national park staff and visitors but supporting conservation in greater percentages than whites, was a great choice.

Burns could have made room for these aspects of the story by condensing some of the story-telling about the individual parks. Yet, like Mather, he has done one thing especially well--he's effectively used his camera lens to connect Americans to the inspirational beauty of the parks, something many of us have forgotten about in our fast-paced artificial worlds. Hopefully viewers will want to go out and smell the glorious scents, let the fresh air fill their lungs, feel the ground under their feet, and laugh with family and friends around a campfire.

I've watched three out of the three nights offered so far and enjoying it. I find it very inspiring. I'm inspired [as a former psychiatric nurse] to discover more about Mather. I'm inspired to read Muir. And I'm definitely inspired to fill in the rest of the stamps in my passport book.

Mr. Burns' film taught me a lot about the history of the creation of the park system. He went under the surface and presented details not widely known. Both Ranger Johnson and the Native ranger offered astounding insights; I'm not so sure about some of the other commentators. I like how the music complemented the documentary, instead of overwhelming it with a grand score. My better half and I have vowed to go see all those Western parks. I have been glued to this series and already have ordered the DVD. It will be interesting to see in the next installments how they present the politics of the parks closer to our own time. Finally the parks are getting some well-deserved attention.

Unfortunately, nothing was left on the cutting room floor! Compared to Ken Burn's previous work, this is a bloated turkey. Rambling, repetitive, tediously paced, poorly edited. Needs to be condensed by half, and could be an interesting, compelling story with more continuity, not a snooze.

The stunning contemporary photos aren't shown enough; while the historical photos are great to see, the same one's are shown again and again.

I agree with the other poster re: more comments from Park Rangers.

I'll watch the remaining episodes because I don't want to miss the good parts, if I can stay awake.

I wrote an essay on what I thought - see A critique of national parks as "America's best idea" at

The opening paragraphs:

Anyone who has been watching the epic Ken Burns six-part documentary on PBS entitled The National Parks: America's Best Idea cannot help but be swept up by the places captured by his camera. When I see Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, I want to drop everything and plan my next adventure, discovering new places I have never seen. When I see familiar video and old pictures from my beloved Yellowstone, a flood of pleasant memories overwhelms me. For evoking such responses in a well-traveled man like me, for doing so to a large number of people for whom the national parks is but a sketchy mystery, Ken Burns should be applauded for that alone.

Ken Burns does many things well both at the sweeping level as well as in minute points (for instance, one I quickly noticed was in not sharing the discredited story that the national park idea was dreamed up at Madison Junction in Yellowstone back in 1870). What I'm writing from hereafter shall be critical, but I don't want to take more away than I will in the following paragraphs. By all means, if you've never visited a national park, if you want a basic primer on the history, if you want to see beautiful things and be inspired, please take the time to watch this documentary. I can't imagine watching it and not wanting to visit some of these places, not wanting to know them more, and not having a greater sense of many of the complicated issues that surround the parks. It is worth at least some of your time.

My biggest problem with The National Parks: America's Best Idea, filmed by Burns but written by Dayton Duncan, is that we are left with a generally positive view of American history. Whether we are talking about the "national park" idea itself, the process by which national parks were "saved," or many of the characters involved - coming to mind right now are Teddy Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller Jr. - I am afraid to say that I believe that the story is far bleaker. That we can be inspired still by these lands is less a testament to the so called "national park idea" so much as the accidental force of American history that allows them to be temporarily saved while everything else is ripped to shreds.

More at

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

So far so good. I have enjoyed it, especially finding more out about some fo the people behind the scenes, for which so many spots in parks are named. I only wish they would talk more about other parks, like Glacier (even though they mentioned it tonight), verses spending so much time on Yellowstone and Yosemite.

I am loving it!

As history, it works; I'm learning a lot I didn't know. But as story-telling, it falters a lot. Conflicts are built up -- Cameron vs. Mather! Stay tuned! -- but then done away with by a few sentences on the following evening. At the same time, troubling issues like the forced removal of people in the creation of Smoky Mountains National Park are barely touched on.

This approach is a problem largely because the filmmaker has decided to make his documentary a narrative -- and then stops and starts the story over and over. It's largely a script problem, and makes me wonder if a less chronological approach might have been more interesting.

Beautiful images, of course, but often no indication of where the shot was taken -- unless of course it was Yosemite or Yellowstone, which we see over and over. I agree there are too many writers interviewed and too few rangers. Who are these writers? What did they write?

I'll keep watching because, as I said, I'm learning things. But there are history lessons that are necessary and history lessons that are compelling; this one seems more necessary.

First off, as for the continuity, I wonder how the DVD will be since the program is divided into what I'd more or less call episodes. I can't help thinking that if you want to later watch it on DVD it will seem odd to have it this way with each "episode" sort of recapping the previous one.

But I'm surprised no one has mentioned, or complained about, the bias. For me personally, the bias matches up pretty closely with my own views but you can't deny he's pushing a particular perspective and view about what the parks should be, their value, history, etc... There are clear good guys and bad guys, and some figures who he wants to avoid labeling bad guys (i.e., people who got kicked out of their homes) are kind of glossed over. Is this slant a good thing or should the film have been more apolitical? I think "rooting for the parks" is a nice perspective personally, but obviously in pushing this view, a lot is left out of the story.

Also, given how much time was put into this, I am surprised how little footage of the parks we see. Burns is really interested in the story of how these places became parks, but has next to nothing on the natural and human history of the places that made them worthy of that designation. I expected this to be a grand showcase of what the parks have to offer and show Americans why they should visit them, as well as tell their story, but it's much more the latter than the former. I understand this is his style and that much of that has been and probably will be done in other films, but I can't help thinking that the story might be told a little better by showing what makes these places so unique and special, and not as many old photoraphs of the buildings and people, photos which, as has been mentioned, get shown over and over.

But overall I'm enjoying the program a lot. I'm looking forward to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt area and to the stories of some of the later-established parks.

I'm enjoying it, but agree that it would have been nice to hear more from the Rangers. Shelton is doing a nice job, but there is a lot of passion (and great storytellers) out in the field and I would have like to have heard other voices.

On a side note, I've found it really interesting to see the "after market" on NPS memorabilia explode on ebay. I guess that people really want to learn more about Muir, Roosevelt, etc. after watching the documentary.

I am enjoying it. It may seem to jump from issue to issue, park to park but it is following the timeline.

A comment regarding Garvins' comment, remember "someone" lived in a lot of the national parks. Remember the native americans !

MikeD, the essay I wrote that I linked to also has the criticism of the overall point of view of the work, focused somewhat on criticizing what I take to be Burns' view that history is made by dynamic, even if complicated characters, and that the national parks in part arose because some of these peculiarly inspired and energetic people went against the grain and made it so. I think that view is ultimately wrong - and not simply because it's a tad melodramatic - but because I think that the national parks arose out of the same strand and forces that were at the same time destroying everything else. That may seem subtle, but I think it's an important distinction because ultimately in the Burns view, we don't know what to make of all these complicated and unsettling anecdotes of atrocities and conflicts and paradoxes (they seem to be for the next generation of inspired and creative Americans to discover). So, his view chugs along mostly happily without much analysis of the many complexities he (to his credit) throws in there. My view is far darker about American history but hopefully more coherent, thus ultimately suggesting ways through this forest. If we understand the causes of the national parks as something within the flow of our history, I think we have a better sense of why these injustices have happened through the history of the parks.

(As for all the talk about more rangers, I find that they are over represented, but that's me - as a critic of the Park Service, you would expect that. I'd rather see much more about those not thought of at all in the national parks experience - the bell hop at the hotel, the waitress, the child, and much more than the token treatment of native peoples.).

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

It's a Ken Burns documentary. In many ways it's more about people and researching that obscure, personal story that can be captivating.

I'm glad there wasn't a complete whitewashing of the saga of people displaced when the Park Service took over lands. Or the influence Gifford Pinchot had on the damming of Hetch Hetchy partially because the national parks didn't have its own agency.

If one really wants a travelogue with oodles of footage of our national parks, just check the Travel Channel listings.

I (as UC Berkeley graduate) find it fascinating that the three people most responsible for the founding of the National Park Service (Mather, Albright, and Lane) were all UC Berkeley alums (although Lane did not graduate). I think I already knew that, but it was interesting that it was mentioned in the series.

I have loved the series thus far. I have learned alot about the history of the parks and been truly inspired by the passionate people who helped create them. Shelton Johnson has been my favorite commentator thus far. I would love to take a hike with him one day.

Shelton Johnson is great though. Still - I sort of wonder what kind of treatment he's going to get after the Ken Burns Series. I remember seeing an interview of him on the publicity tour and reading some of the comments he's given to newspapers. Apparently he thinks that it might get him a little bit of notoriety but he's hoping that he can just settle down and be a federal employee.

And he doesn't seem to have his glasses on anywhere during the tour or the series. The originals were a bit too wide to post here, so I just included thumbnails (you can click on the thumbnails for the larger versions).



He's also been interviewed about the notoriously low pay that park rangers have. He's said that he wouldn't mind a raise but it's been worth it. Hopefully his book sales gets him that raise so that he can return to Yosemite.

For what it's worth, Shelton told me he does indeed hope to remain at Yosemite. He also said he's suggested to his superiors that he not be stationed in the park's Visitor Center for the immediate future as it might prove more trouble than good in terms of folks wanting to talk to him about him rather than the park.

The thing that first hits Yosemite visitors who meet Shelton Johnson is that he is different. He's extremely eloquent and well spoken. He's got a very quick wit. It doesn't really matter that he's black and grew up in urban Detroit, although that is an important factor in who he is. I guess he doesn't necessarily fit the image of a national park ranger. He had that slightly sinister looking facial hair, and I'm a bit disappointed that he seemed to have shaved it for much of the Ken Burns series. The mustache and spot under the chin gave him a certain edge. He does wear the earrings though.

For those who haven't been on one of his hikes, I can relay some personal experiences. The first time I'd ever seen him in any medium was when I went to a program showing a video on winter in Yosemite. He was videotaped playing the clarinet with snow all around him. The next day I went to the visitor center for some directions and he was the one who helped me out - recommending boots with ankle support for the Upper Yosemite Fall Trail and what to do at Hetch Hetchy before I left. He also was scheduled to give a ranger walk and talk on bears in a few minutes. I waited around for that and the first sign that it was going to be really fun was when he asked everyone to get a little closer. He noted that he'd rather have people come closer so that he wouldn't have to yell, since it can get a little scary when a federal employee starts yelling. He had a bear skin too, which he slowly pulled out of his pack. At the end of the walk he answered questions, including one about the clarinet. He noted that it was so cold that he was putting on gloves between takes and it was rather difficult to play since it was so cold. He did seem to appreciate that I brought up his research on the Buffalo Soldiers who patrolled the Sierra parks, although I may have been the only one in the group who knew about it.

I was actually quite pleased that he was leading the snowshoe walk I went on over a year later. I don't think he was the usual ranger guide, but I lucked into going on that day. We did certain things like hold hands in a circle and just feel the area around us. I've got that picture where he's showing us the bear marks on a small tree. I also remember trying to get the snow off of my fleece gloves. At first he said tickled that I was applauding him, but then it occurred to him that I was just trying to remove the snow to avoid getting hypothermia.

As for the likely notoriety for his participation in the series:

"There may be a passing phase of notoriety. I will go back to being a federal employee. I'm very privileged to work as a national park ranger and to live where I live, which I believe is the most beautiful place on the face of the Earth."

There is supplemental material too, such as the following. Part of his wry sense of humor is seen when he says to the visitors, "I'm going to have to break this to you, but I'm African-American. And..I'm a park ranger. In Yosemite, there's me. Then there's me. And there's also me."


Humans special! Humans wonderful!!!

I can't even watch it, it is irritating me so much.

As usual Burns has done an excellent job with his subject. The series will no doubt build support for, and increase visitation in the parks FROM THAT SUBSET OF THE AMERICAN PUBLIC THAT WATCHES PBS! That subset is unfortunately not the group that will be leading (and voting in) our society in 50 years. If the parks do not reach out to these groups that will make up the majority of our population in the coming century then the parks will eventually go the way of the passenger pigeon.

I also feel that the concentration on the big well-known parks (and just the 58 "parks") does a huge disservice to the rest of the units that make up the 391 UNITS of the park system. This just confirms the public's mistaken impression that the Park System is just those "big, natural" areas. This was a missed opportunity to relay to folks that the Park System is SO much more than Yellowstone and Yosemite or for that matter those "58" national parks.

They haven't done an exclusive story only about the units with the "National Park" label. They've gone quite a bit in depth about the Antiquities Act of 1906 and the power it gave to the President to declare National Monuments. They've touched on Horace Albright's move to consolidate National Battlefields from what was previously under control of the War Dept into the National Park Service.

Gerard Baker is heavily featured in the series as Superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

There also should be no doubt that the crown jewels of the NPS should get a lot of airtime.

I'd just add that after seeing more of the series, they seemed to have gotten Ranger Johnson filmed at various stages of his appearance.

I am reading through these pages of comments, and it all seems like a pile of negative cynical "Monday Morning Quarterbacks" throwing stones. All of you would criticze John Muir to his face, as well? Certainly you would all stab him in the back for WHAT HE DIDN'T DO. In any film or work of art there's always something that could have been done differently.

If you ask me, anyone who looks for things missing for the sake of nailing criticism, is missing something within him/herself, and lacks the true depth to appreciate a stream flowing, for simply what it is. Not what it is not.

I couldn't disagree with you more, James. Film producers, playwrights, football coaches, musicians, park managers, and everyone else purveying a product or service (yes, even the people who produce this webzine) need the feedback that critics provide. Taken in the spirit intended, it makes you work harder and smarter. As to the matter at hand, there's little question that the Burns national documentary has some pretty significant flaws. Pretending that they are not there helps nobody.

I enjoyed the series, and now that I've seen it, had a couple of reactions to it and to the comments on this story.

If you look at Ken Burn's other work, it's primarily from the viewpoint of a historian - not a travel writer, or a naturalist - and that's reflected in this one as well. That's his approach, and that's fine. That leaves the field wide open for those who want a different perspective :-)

This is clearly a subject that offers a lot more material than could be covered, even lightly, in the time available. It's worth remembering that the title was "The National Parks" ... not the "national park system." He had to narrow the focus somehow, and there was acknowledgment of "monuments," and to some extent, other types of areas.

Like some others, I would have enjoyed a little less emphasis on Yellowstone and Yosemite and more on some other sites, but I certainly learned some things I didn't know about both parks. Since viewing the series didn't cost me anything except a little time, I'm appreciative of the time and work that went into the project.

The series was a good reminder about how fortunate we are to have the parks and other units in the system that we enjoy today - and how things could very well have turned out differently were it not for the determination of a relatively small number of men and women.

One key question is whether the series will influence how we respond - as individuals and as a nation - to the issues facing our parks in the years to come.

On Montana PBS, I just saw a short 30-minute documentary entitled "Before there were parks: Native views on Yellowstone and Glacier." If too brief, it was well made and offers what I think is an interesting counter-balance to the Burns story. I think it offers a different, even contrasting view of the parks; and if people have a chance to see it, I suggest they do.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

While teh series was visually spectacular, and historically informative, Ken Burns did not make the case for the American family to visit the parks. Visitor centers were portraied as unattractive: couldn't he have concentrated at the fact that there was SOME education going on here, and that the average family just want to get out and enjoy the outdoors. I saw NO footage of crowds of people enjoying themselves, just crowds feeding animals in Yellowstone: who's fault is that? The US Park Service sets the rules and tone of the park; that is a precedent that was done decades ago. These habits are hard to change.
TOO MUCH YOSEMITE!!! My wife and I visited Yosemite two years ago; what happened to Galen Clark, the protector of the park?
Again, not enough diversity of people, and visits to other parks. 10 minutes on Denali! Are you kidding?
Again, thank you for the visually spectacular tribute to the parks. I wish that more people were consulted to comment on the value of the parks today: like citizens who use the parks.

Maybe I missed it, but I would have thought that Burns would have had some mention of Edward Abbey. His views on park transportation (only appropriate by horse, foot, or bicycle) would have been an interesting counterpoint to the earlier successful integration of roads into many of our National Parks. I think I watched all 12 hours, although some of it was joined mid-episode where I tried to view parts I missed on the web.

As for footage of crowds enjoying our national parks - I do recall some. If you check some of the extra material that didn't quite make it into the final series, they filmed footage of Shelton Johnson leading interpretive programs at Yosemite and Park Superintendent Gerard Baker greeting visitors at Mount Rushmore. The one thing that I'm surprised didn't make it was the group of schoolkids touring Death Valley.

The extra footage is actually quite interesting. Most of the narration is by Ken Burns himself. I think only the final cut was actually narrated by Peter Coyote. Still - a lot of the quotations were still performed by talent such as Tom Hanks before they were cut out of the final series.