What Ken Burns Left Out

Ken Burns' wildly popular documentary on the national parks said a lot, but not quite enough.

On October 22, 2009, shortly after the Ken Burns documentary on America’s national parks aired on National Public Television, I was invited to make a presentation to the Santa Fe Rotary Club. My topic for the talk was, “What Ken Burns left out.” Here is a slightly edited version of my presentation.

Many of us watched all or parts of the latest Ken Burn’s film on KNME-TV, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. It was typical Burns work—lavish production values, important talking heads, and an authentic star of the show, Ranger Shelton Johnson. I hope you also noticed that Santa Fe resident and Director of NM State Monument System, Ernest Ortega, was featured in one of the segments. The film concentrated on the early history of the creation of our national park system, with hundreds of gorgeous slow motion shots of early parks such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Crater Lake and Glacier. The narrative made the point that most of our park areas would not exist today but for the passion and dedication of small groups of people who sold their fellow citizens and their congressional representatives on the idea that these areas should be preserved and protected in perpetuity. That is why there have been so few deauthorizations of areas once established. It is a matter of generational equity. Succeeding generations of Americans do not want to second guess the decisions that the preceding generations have made regarding our park areas. I know that I would hate to think that a subsequent generation of Americans would seek to deauthorize areas that my generation added such as Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, or Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

What interested me, though, about the Burns film is what it left out. I’d like to spend the rest of the time we have together discussing some issues that were not part of the film.

1. National park areas may face relevance problems in the future.

Our country is becoming racially and ethnically more diverse all time. My brother just retired as an elementary school principal in a well-to-do suburb of Detroit. His school population included children from 26 different languages. We know that few African-Americans visit national park areas; the same is true for Americans of Hispanic heritage. Will these and other racial and ethnic groups support continuing appropriations to maintain our national park areas if we do not find a way to make them feel like they are owners of the system?

Moreover, some observers have noted that younger people spend increasingly less time in the out of doors. In a recent book published on the topic, one young man was reported to have said, “Why would I want to go outdoors? There’s no place to plug in my computer.” If that is representative of his peers, then our parks may suffer from decreasing public support as these kids grow up and become voting adults. Will they be satisfied, as some have suggested, with virtual hikes in Bandelier National Monument instead of actually walking the trail system? Will an I pod photo of Old Faithful be a satisfactory substitute for the real thing?

This is a very real problem. Burns made the point that early park managers recognized that they had to build a constituency for parks if they were to survive. Now, the constituency exists—after all, Yellowstone broke its all-time visitation record this year—but can we hold on to it as we become increasingly diverse and our kids are distracted by computers, flat screen TVs and game boys?

2. The National Park System is much more diverse than the Burns film suggested.

There are now 392 areas that are a part of the system. Parks are situated as far east as Acadia National Park in Maine and as far west as War in the Pacific National Historic Site in Guam where the sacrifices of American and Japanese soldiers in World War II are commemorated. The farthest south is National Park of American Samoa, which is actually in the Southern Hemisphere, and the farthest north is Gates of the Arctic National Park, a portion of which is 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The parks vary dramatically in size. The smallest is Thaddeus Kosciusko National Memorial in Philadelphia, two hundredths of an acre. The largest is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, at 8.3 million acres. If you could explore a section of this National Park each day—640 acres, an almost impossible task—it would take you nearly 36 years. That completed, you could then spend another 21 years exploring the adjacent Wrangell-St. Elias National Preserve, which is also a unit of the National Park System.

More than 60 percent of the areas of the System preserve and protect sites important to us for their historical or cultural associations. In the System, we can hear the drums and cannons of the Revolutionary War at Minute Man or Colonial. We can sense the excitement of nation building at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. We can trace the bloody trail of General Grant as he clashed with General Lee at places such as the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Petersburg, Richmond, ending, finally and mercifully, in the stillness at Appomattox. We can trace the contributions of individuals or groups of people at these sites. The contributions of Black Americans are celebrated at places such as Booker T, Washington National Monument, Frederick Douglass Home National Memorial, or Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site Sites with Hispanic associations are Castillo de San Marcos, De Soto, Coronado, El Morro, Chamizal, San Antonio Missions, and Cabrillo. We can think about the contributions of American artists at NPS sites such as Carl Sandburg Home, Eugene O'Neil, Longfellow, Poe, and St. Gaudens. American women are commemorated at Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, and Women’s Rights National Historical Park in New York, the scene of on early suffragette meeting. We can contemplate the genius of our American Indian ancestors at Mesa Verde or Chaco, or sense their pain at Little Big Horn Battlefield or Canyon de Chelly. We commemorate presidents, some great such as Lincoln and Washington and some perhaps not so great like Hoover and Taft. We celebrate scientists such as Edison and inventors like the Wright brothers. It is, in sum, a remarkable collection of places.

But that's not all. In 1936, Congress ordered the NPS to study the impoundment behind Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, for its recreational potential. It was our first recreation area. In the public works days of the 1930's, several parkway projects were authorized and begun. The NPS now manages such places as the Blue Ridge, Natchez Trace, and the George Washington Memorial Parkway in D.C. In 1937, Congress authorized the first national seashore, Cape Hatteras. In 1972, the first urban recreation areas were created and the NPS assumed management responsibilities at Gateway National Recreation Area in New York/New Jersey and Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco.

3. The debate about what is appropriate in our national park areas is becoming increasingly shrill.

The use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks has prompted an unprecedented outpouring of public comment during the various plans that have been put forward to control the machine’s use. Something like a half a million letters and petitions have flooded the offices of the Department of the Interior and its bureau, the National Park Service. Even after all the plans and scientific studies, it appears that the federal court system will be the final arbiter.

A similar controversy has erupted about the carrying of weapons in national park areas. A Bush administration rule that would have allowed the carrying of concealed weapons in parks was overruled by a federal judge. Her decision was rendered moot by an amendment to the credit card bill proposed by Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), and signed by President Obama that allows the carrying of weapons in national park areas consistent with state law. This will go into effect in February 2010. 130,000 comments were received by the Department of the Interior during the rule-making process.

4. National park areas are important economic engines in the areas in which they exist.

When I was the superintendent of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, I made an annual appearance at the Chamber of Commerce and the City Council meeting. At that time, Carlsbad had approximately 800,000 annual visitors. The AAA estimated that the typical family of four in the mid-80’s spent $160 dollars per day while on vacation—gas, food, motels or campsites, souvenirs, and the like. If you take the 800,000 visitors to the Caverns and divide them by 4, that is an estimated 200,000 families spending $160 a day—or something like $32 million dollars. And, as I pointed out, these dollars circulated through the community in unique ways. These visitors did not make the same demands as regular residents on services such as police, fire, school and health. In other words, the community received but did not incur the same costs. I don’t think I ever gave presentations that were as well-received as these.

5. America’s creation of a system of protected areas such as national parks has spurred other nations to do the same.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature reports that there are now over 100,000 established protected areas in the world, not all of them national parks, of course, but all established to preserve and protect natural and cultural resources. These areas cover approximately 11.63% of the world’s terrestrial and marine areas. Yellowstone was the first such area created in the world; more than 140 nations have followed suit. In the developing world, such areas are often looked at as a way to promote the sustainable use of resources to assure a brighter future for young people. Protected areas in these countries are also the focal point for environmental education.

As community leaders in your businesses and industries, you have an important role to play in assuring that our National Park System remains healthy and vigorous. Contact Senators Bingaman and Udall and Representative Lujan and tell them that you support your national parks. Become active in the park areas that surround Santa Fe. Within a 100 mile radius, you have Bandelier National Monument, Pecos National Historical Park (including Glorietta Pass National Historic Site), and Petroglyph National Monument. If you add to those only the ones in our state—Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and El Morro, El Malpais, White Sands, Fort Union, Salinas Pueblo Missions, Gila Cliff Dwellings, Aztec Ruins, and Capulin Volcano National Monuments, you have a rich diversity of areas to visit.

Take your kids and enroll them in the Junior Ranger programs in these areas. I spent two weeks volunteering this summer at a museum in Yellowstone and was surprised at how enthusiastic the kids were about the park’s Junior Ranger program. Buy them a national parks passport and help them get the passport stamped in as many parks as the family visits. Sit with them at the computer and go to www.nps.gov and have them pick out the parks they would most like to visit and then go there.

The noted ecologist, Aldo Leopold, once said that the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts. That’s what we are doing in our national park areas—we are saving all the parts. Leopold told a story in his famous Sand County Almanac. I wonder if you remember it.

Let me tell you of a wild river bluff which until 1935, harbored a falcon’s eyrie. Many visitors walked a mile to the river bank to picnic and watch the falcons. Comes now some planner and dynamites a road to the river, all in the name of recreational planning. The excuse is that the public formerly had no right of access; now it has such a right. Access to what? Not access to the falcons for they are gone.

Only eternal vigilance on peoples’ parts such as those in this audience will make sure that our children and their children’s children will inherit all the parts and not a road with no falcons. Remember that outside our parks and other protected areas, we have transformed nature to our purposes and chewed up our history. As Ken Burns noted, it is in the parks where we find out who and what we are as Americans.

Comments

Great story and right on. Except one error. The first urban national park was not Gateway in 1972. It was Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in 1966.

Anon, you need to be careful not to twist us into knots here. There are three problems that In see.

First, Rick didn't say, nor even imply, that Gateway National Recreation Area was the first "urban national park." What he said was this [italics are mine]:

..... In 1936, Congress ordered the NPS to study the impoundment behind Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, for its recreational potential. It was our first recreation area. In the public works days of the 1930's, several parkway projects were authorized and begun. The NPS now manages such places as the Blue Ridge, Natchez Trace, and the George Washington Memorial Parkway in D.C. In 1937, Congress authorized the first national seashore, Cape Hatteras. In 1972, the first urban recreation areas were created and the NPS assumed management responsibilities at Gateway National Recreation Area in New York/New Jersey and Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco.

Rick's justified in making this claim because no urban-oriented National Recreation Area-designated units existed in the National Park System until Congress created the two "flagship" urban NRAs, Gateway and Golden Gate.

A second problem your comment creates is additional confusion concerning just what should be called an "urban" national park. There were loads of NPS units (mostly national historic sites, monuments, and memorials) in urban locations before Gateway or Golden Gate or Indian Dunes ever arrived on the scene. All of them are urban parks, though none was a Congressionally designated Nnational Recreation Area.

The third problem is just where Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore would come in the pecking order if we held to your initial assertion. The modern era of urban mass recreation parks began in the 1960s with the establishment of three major urban-oriented units, the last of which was Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Serving the recreational needs of the greater Boston area was a major rationale for establishing the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1961. When Fire Island National Seashore was created in 1964, the goal was not only to protect barrier island resources, but also to provide recreation opportunities for people living in and near New York, America’s largest urban region. The creation of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in 1966 was justified largely on grounds that residents of the Chicago-Gary region would find it convenient to visit and enjoy.

All of this said, I love Indiana Dunes and promise to write about it more often.

"...but can we hold on to it as we become increasingly diverse and our kids are distracted by computers, flat screen TVs and game boys?"

I can see where your concern lies, but the fact that we increasingly rely and enjoy the use of technology does not mean we do not also appreciate and want to protect nature. If anything, we are better at mobilizing groups around a cause because of it.

That's a very good point, Robert. While I can't speak for Rick, I'm sure he endorses the notion that we need to embrace electronic technology as a valuable tool, not simply rail against it because it can be used in ways harmful to national park interests.

Robert--

I like it when Janiskee speaks for me because I always sound more interlligent.

I agree the technology can work wonders. Evidently there's an Iphone app that can be used to identify invasive plants in Santa Monica Mountains NRA. That's good stuff. What I worry about is that some kids don't seem to spend much time out-of-doors. Can a kid who has never climbed a tree, built a fort from which to throw snowballs, or got temporarily lost in the woods grow up to be a supporter of conservation on our public lands? I certainly hope so and maybe a photo of Old Faithful on his/her Ipod will encourage the kid to bug his parents to take him/her to Yellowstone. It will be intersting to see how this all plays out.

Rick Smith

Bob - I have great respect for this website and you excellent support of the parks. I will concede your point that Indiana Dunes is not an NRA. But, it is quite different from Cape Cod and Fire Island. Those parks are more than 50 miles from their urban centers. Indiana Dunes is IN the city of Gary and 3 or 4 train stations along the commuter train to Chicago run through the park. Furthermore, Indiana Dunes is in and surrounded by heavy industry and urbanization. None of the seashores has that. Bottom line is that I guess it's not really a contest. Just another tally as to how diverse the park system is and what a misleading image the limited Burns perspective gave it.

I agree with everything you've said, Anon, and will only add that it was Congress that decided that Cape Cod and Fire Island are "urban-oriented." I believe that one produced 535 legislative branch winks!

Great article.
"1. National park areas may face relevance problems in the future."............And yet Yellowstone reports record visitation. I think parks will always remain relevant. I understand the concern, but also feel that a slowing of visitation INCREASES may also be a good thing before we love our parks to death.

With regards to the first point, I've been to several events where Ken introduced his work. In each and every one of his talks, he mentions as a chief concern the addiction of the younger generation to the virtual world, and the need to connect them with nature (and the parks). I assume the reason why this doesn't appear in the film is that the film is about history, and not present issues. The concern with minorities led him to produce a 45mm companion film that is explicitly about them.

Tuan.

National Parks images

Sometimes I wonder if we accomplish anything by debating details -- such as the properly proper name of an area or which was first, second, or third in some detail.

What's really important is that these are National Park AREAS. Each a precious treasure of some kind.

What I missed in Ken's presentation was any mention of the fact that our parks still face the same kinds of threats as they have always faced. In fact, in some ways, current threats may be even greater. Air quality isn't as easy to quantify as were the pillages of timber barons. There's nothing romantic about invasive species. And political considerations . . . . . .

I do wish he had not stopped with enumerating political threats somewhere along with Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan. Some of our worst challenges have come more recently and Americans need to have them pointed out if they are going to fight them.

((((By the way, I HATE captcha!)))))) Is it case sensitive or is my eyesight failing or is it because I don't speak Swahili or Russian that I have so much trouble with that thing?

I'm new here, although I am not new to national parks (my first national park visit was at age three -- Carlsbad Caverns -- and when I played with PBS's park widget publicizing the series, it turns out I've been to 99 different National Park Service units). I just wanted to say that I appreciate what you had to say about the series. Much as I loved it, it was rather more elegiac (and sentimental -- I could have done without Terry Tempest-Williams, and the near-deification of John Muir) than practical. Then again, with the exception of his series on baseball and jazz, Ken Burns tends to pick topics that are purely historical, and I think he has a hard time stretching outside that particular parameter.

Still, I'm glad he made the series. Any positive publicity about our parks is a good thing.

And he included one of my favorite (to the point where I fictionalized her in a novel I'm currently trying to sell) characters to come out of the history of our national parks, Emma Cowan [g].

Between digital photography and computers more and more people are discovering national parks and visiting national parks. As much as I like looking at books, the computer has put many more destinations on the radar for me. It's much easier to plan a trip than it used to be thanks to technology. With up to the minute road conditions, weather, vacancies, reservations on the road, and reviews, travelers and people are more inspired to travel, and traveling is more inspiring.

Wrangell-St Elias is 13 million acres, not 8.2. Actually the park is 12 million acres and 1 million acres of land is priovately owned!

Rick's Wrangell-St. Elias numbers are correct, Anon. The Wrangell-St. Elias size thing is a little trickier than you've let on. For reasons we can't get into here, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Wrangell-St. Elias National Preserve count as two separate units of the National Park System. This means, among other things, that it's easy to get very confused about Wrangell-St. Elias statistics. You have one set of statistics for the park, another set for the preserve, and yet another set for the park & preserve taken together.

Here are the numbers for Wrangell-St. Elias from page 20 of the National Parks Index 2009-2011:

Acreage—National park: 8,323,147.59 Federal:7,662,705.29 Nonfederal: 660,442.30.

National preserve: 4,852,753.10 Federal: 4,002,707.60 Nonfederal:850,045.50.

Wilderness area: 8,700,000.

Although the park and the preserve are counted as two separate units of the 392-unit National Park System, they have the same four-letter code (WRST), the same phone and fax numbers, and the same superintendent.
When you visit the park's website the home page is labeled Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, and the very first paragraph of the narrative is under the heading "Largest National Park in the United States." The reader can certainly be forgiven for thinking that the park and the preserve are a single unit of the national park system.

Thanks, Rick, for your list. I've done some talks and radio appearances on the same theme and it's interesting to see a different list.

My list has, in similar form, your (1) and (2). I also discuss (4) but in a less favorable way.

My own list has:
(A) Not all parks were created by an individual hero like Muir. Many are the work of local civic associations over a long time. That leaves a nice impression on people because most of us aren't heroes but all of us can join a group and help out.

(B) Native Americans still exist and still have close associations with parks. Grand Canyon, Olympic and Nez Perce are some positive examples where the NPS has learned to build better relationships with affiliated tribes. The list of negative examples is, unfortunately, a lot longer.

Bob--

Good point on B! The most recent Forum of the George Wright Society is devoted to ethnography in the National Park Service, a discipline that looks at the relationship of American Indians and other traditional people with National Park Service areas. As you point out, the NPS has learned a lot in this area but still has a long way to go. The majority of park superintendents are much more sensitive about this relationship than they were a couple decades ago.

Rick Smith

As you posted, Indiana Dunes is a "Lakeshore", not a "Recreation Area." The point is not proximity to an urban center, per se, but the designation itself.

Rick writes: "Evidently there's an Iphone app that can be used to identify invasive plants in Santa Monica Mountains NRA. That's good stuff."

Wow, yes! I had no idea. It's not limited to SAMO, nor to iPhones either. Can the Traveler do an article on this great new program: http://whatsinvasive.com/ ?

Thanks Rick for this informative piece. It's true Burns didn't tell it all. Yet it will mean that more people are exposed to the history. As a Park Ranger, I think that's great. Plus it may get more people out to our parks, if the parks can handle the crowds. Now that's another story.

I believe current technology can entice young people to care for and visit parks. Then it's up to Ranger's to get them excited about the park through programs and activities, like the Junior Ranger Program.

As I said above, I thnk the junior ranger program is one of the best the NPS has going. I wish every kid could enroll in the program.

Rick Smith

Rick Smith:
As I said above, I thnk the junior ranger program is one of the best the NPS has going. I wish every kid could enroll in the program.

My father (who is a Golden Age Pass holder) got his Junior Ranger badge at Grand Teton. Apparently the qualifications are specific to the park, and Grand Teton has no age restriction.

I think I also saw one NPS site that had collected and displayed Junior Ranger badges from well over a hundred NPS units.

Since the film was intended from its origins to be a pro-NPS promotion rather than a true documentary, it's not surprising that a major omission was the scope of the political machinations in creating new government areas out of private property and the public objections to this practice when it becomes known, usually too late for the victims.

Out of the whole 6 part serious only a minute and a quarter was spent on condemnation of private property, and that was limited to the Smoky Mountains in the 1930s, as if this has not occurred all over the country from the beginning of the parks to the present, with much more threatened if apologists for this abuse get their way.

The minute following the description of the brutal Smoky Mountains population removal was diversionary double talk trying to explain it away in terms of which collective group of what size should politically dominate, with no mention of the rights of individuals.

But an honest treatment in the film was not possible as long as this promotion pretended that the abuse is "America's best idea" -- what was termed the "Declaration of Independence for the land" wouldn't go over too well with most viewers if they were told how it was imposed at the expense of innocent people in the way of the wealthy, politically-connected types claiming to "save" someone else's property from its rightful owners.

The urban Minute Man National Historic Park in the western suburbs of Boston was established in 1959, before Gateway, Indiana Dunes or the urban recreation program. Minute Man was distinguished as the first National Park to use Federal condemnation to take over an area that was almost all privately owned and already settled. In the name of -- of all things -- commemorating the American Revolution, NPS forcibly removed about 150 homes, farms and small businesses after local people had been promised that this would not be done in order to head off controversy over the legislation. This routine was repeated at Cape Cod, established in 1961, and many times subsequently, causing a lot of bitterness everywhere it happens. Indiana Dunes was also especially brutal. The Duncan/Burns promotion did not mention such "diversity".

I spend considerable time in the National Parks each year. As said above the Major Parks are experiencing growth each year to their demise. Plans are under way to restrict car travel and go to mass transport systems. Why would we want to encourage more visitors? With the baby boomers out in full force a campground cannot be found a majority of the time. Why don't we spend the park budgets on improvements for the 3+ million visitors who are visiting the major parks instead of promoting more visitation?

While I'd think some use of eminent domain has been controversial, there have been some more amicable. Recently the Flight 93 Memorial has completed its purchases without having to resort to eminent domain.

There are inholdings too where the NPS has decided it wasn't worth the effort to use eminent domain. Yosemite has a couple including Foresta and Wawona. Kings Canyon has Wilsonia.

Anonymous:
I spend considerable time in the National Parks each year. As said above the Major Parks are experiencing growth each year to their demise. Plans are under way to restrict car travel and go to mass transport systems. Why would we want to encourage more visitors? With the baby boomers out in full force a campground cannot be found a majority of the time. Why don't we spend the park budgets on improvements for the 3+ million visitors who are visiting the major parks instead of promoting more visitation?

Not all NPS units are that heavily visited.

In addition, the demographics might be different too. I suppose the worry is that while visitation in some parks is at an all time high, the visitors tend to be older (you mentioned boomers) and the proportion of new park visitors to support our parks politically may be declining.

In a manner similar to great art, great music, and great halls of higher learning, I believe that our national parks will remain inherently relevant to our society as long as the visitor experience is not impaired by traffic congestion, overt commercialism, or a substandard, unfirendly encounter with uniformed (and non-uniformed) staff.

I would surmise that it's possible to build a strong public constituency for parks, even among those who have never had the personal chance to visit a major unit of the national park system. For example, I believe that National Parks Traveler is doing a terrific job reporting on all aspects of our parks, including problems faced by park visitors and park managers. The fact that readership has surpassed 100,000 hits per month is a very good sign of progress and success.

The Ken Burns special focused on the historical significance of John Muir, Ansel Adams and many others. These legendary greats, through their writings and photography, built a large public constituency among many who themselves had never seen Yosemite or Yellowstone.

Today, we have the enormous added power of the internet to increase the public's awareness of park values and park issues. One thing I like about the new National Parks Facebook page is that it, like National Parks Traveler, keeps park ideas and issues alive in the minds of many of us who may reside many miles away from a major park. This will make a difference, both in terms of future park visits and in terms of building a strong voter base of support for continued park funding.

At present, I would say that the subgroup representing the strongest advocates for a quality national park experience are repeat park visitors who frequent the front and back country of one or more parks on a more or less regular basis, as well as present and former employees of the NPS. This subgroup is well represented by those who have commented on this article and others posted on National Parks Traveler.

By contrast, the subgroup who measure park relevancy by small fluctuations in park visitation are usually those who depend on park visitation for their economic livelihood. This includes owners and employees of park concessions, commercial establishments within gateway communities, and stakeholders within the outdoor recreation/travel industry.

I would contend that those who equate park relevancy with increases in park visitation will be unlikely proponents of plans which attempt to establish visitor carrying capacities for specific areas of parks. Yet, in parks where traffic congestion, over-crowding, and resource damage from excessive visitor use are evident, some form of visitor carrying capacities is necessary to protect resources and prevent impairment of the over-all park experience.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

Rick,

Thanks for this insightful piece. I thought the neglect of non "park" areas, especially historical sites, was especially unfortunate. It caused the series to mostly overlook (with the exception of that final segment that had a bit on the Lincoln Memorial) the Park Service's role as our nation's most important historical classroom and that meant that it gave almost no attention to the fascinating matter of how we, as a nation, decide what history to remember, what the forget, what to "commemorate," and what to mourn. These issues are every bit as interesting and important for us as conflicts over nature and land use.

I also agree with the writer above (Lee Dalton) who lamented the lack of attention to present-day debates, pressures, and dilemmas (including the unconscionable underfunding of our parks). The series didn't do much to help people understand what is at stake now, and how they (we) need to step up in our time to protect and preserve our parks.

Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking post!

Anne Mitchell Whisnant, Ph.D.
Historian & Author of Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History
and When the Parkway Came (a book for children, with David E. Whisnant)
Chapel Hill, NC

A strange bit of hand-wringing in a day when everything causes division and depression. I suppose if Ken Burns had wanted to present a series on the struggles and challenges that face the parks, rather than the struggles and challenges the parks and their supporters overcame so that the parks have come into existence, he would have made a different film.

It seems odd to take exception with the fact that he didn't make the film that you wanted him to make. It likewise doesn't seem fair not to take the film at face value, and judge it for what it is.

Dirk Hurst

Dirk Hurst:
It seems odd to take exception with the fact that he didn't make the film that you wanted him to make. It likewise doesn't seem fair not to take the film at face value, and judge it for what it is.

Certainly a lot of people have their own feelings about what is important. In the leadup to the series, I kept on hearing questions from certain interest groups. One was of a someone who didn't like Yosemite NP's telling of the story of native peoples in Yosemite Valley and was hoping that the Burns series would tell their side of view.

He did go over a little bit of the history of land takings and people forced out of their homes. However - it frankly would have been a consistent downer to spend more than a few minutes on the topic.

There was more than just the telling of the grand natural areas. A good deal was devoted to Gerard Baker, who is the superintendent at Mount Rushmore, as well as time in the series about how National Battlefields (and other designations) were transferred from the War Dept to the NPS.

Dick Hurst--

Please understand that I was not criticizing the Burns film. In fact, I liked it a lot. The title of the talk, "What Ken Burns Left Out" was meant to be an attention grabber--it appears to have worked here on NPT--and to expose a group of people who probably don't think very much about parks to some issues I think are important. I would never accuse an artist of not making the film I wanted. After all, he/she has to make the film that he/she wants. Otherwise, we are not talking about an artist but about a commercial film maker.

Thanks to all the people who have commented on this thread. I have been fascinated by the scope of the comments and the passion they show for parks. Now, if I can only do the captcha

Rick Smith

On January 12th, 2010

While I'd think some use of eminent domain has been controversial, there have been some more amicable. Recently the Flight 93 Memorial has completed its purchases without having to resort to eminent domain.


There is no amicable seizure of property that is not for sale. Acquisition for the Flight 93 Memorial in rural Pennsylvania was in the news several times because of the controversy over NPS threats of eminent domain against unwilling sellers. Eventually they all gave in under the threats, with one owner "agreeing" to valuation determined by the court. NPS falsely insists that this heavy handed process is all "willing seller".

NPS automatically has eminent domain authority unless limited by the specific current legislation for a particular park. Court cases in eminent domain are futile for anything but disputing the so-called "just compensation". The owner has no choice to not sell.

When NPS wants the land and decides to go after it, the owners are forced to become "willing sellers" under the overt threat of eminent domain, or through provisions in the legislation that not do permit the owners to use their own land, forcing them over time to give up and sell to NPS -- the only buyer possible (or a land trust fronting for NPS). This has, for example, been the case at Acadia for years. Acadia is one of the parks that NPS and Burns/Duncan claim is based only on "willing sellers". It isn't true.

An owner giving up under these threats and pressure tactics does not make him an "amicable" "willing seller" whether or not he can afford to go to court to argue over the "price".

There are inholdings too where the NPS has decided it wasn't worth the effort to use eminent domain. Yosemite has a couple including Foresta and Wawona. Kings Canyon has Wilsonia.

NPS has tried to remove the communities at Yosemite several times spanning decades, including under Ridenour (Director under the first President Bush) using the fires at Foresta as an excuse. It has run into massive outcries that temporarily made the government mostly back off until the next round. There are still inholders (and many other owners targeted for park expansion) all over the country, but NPS and its backers like NPCA want to get rid of them as soon as funding and the controversial takings rolling over the owners becomes politically feasible.

If the backers of the proposed Federal entitlement for acquisition get their way and NPS becomes an independent agency with even less accountability to Congress, then a lot more property owners are going to be wiped out. With guaranteed funding and no way to legally or politically stop the seizures, people will not only lose their rights but any means to try to defend them. A lot of people who otherwise like the parks are repulsed by these processes, threats, and the constant disingenuous denials and cover ups.

Burns and Duncan did not report on any of this abuse by NPS because the film was intended to promote NPS and lobby for more power and money for the agency.


Land acquisition is not an abuse. It is not a compromise against freedom. It is not in contrast with the American Revolution, for goodness sake. Anyone who is a patriot knows the US Constitution provides for eminent domain takings of land, to be fully compensated. No nation can function as a nation if critical national needs are beyond the reach of the people's government. It is silly to argue about taking land for parks as if it is an aberration. Land is taken for highways, for military bases, for dams, or sanitation systems. Within limits, the government even has the right to regulate land use without compensation, for example in cases where one person's use of the land can damage the needs of all, such as when development on wetlands can pollute the water for all. In the entire history of Anglo Saxon law, if you damage your neighbor's land by the way you use yours, it is a violation and can be stopped by law.

The wonderful thing about "America's Best Idea" is that the United States applied this essential tool for all the people to the best places for preservation. It makes sense. Private development would have degraded the experience of being American for everybody. Historians today bemoan the way Greece, when it was the leading nation of the world, so degraded its landscape that today it looks nothing like the way it did when it was rising toward greatness.

Rick Smith did a service in pointing out that Burns should have made his own film, but that there are important aspect of the NP System and is programs not included. Afterall, Burns is a historian, and selectively did a history of the larger natural areas and a few cultural areas. The people he chose to interview or depict are not presented as "the best" as if it were a contest. Muir represents the struggle many organizations and individuals waged over decades to protect america's most important places. No one would think John Cook has to be thought of as the highest ideal -- any one who knows him knows he is just typical of many who were fortunate to serve the National Parks, and Terry Tempest Williams is one voice among many who see significance in parks. Burns' show may have missed the diversity of parks, but it did show just a bit of the diversity of insight and sensitivity so many people can have to the very same place. THAT diversity is a reason for the richness and meaning of the programs and parks of the National Park System.

Anyway, Burns did not do a film on parks, he did a history of parks. It would be a mistake for people to think by watching it you would learn all the meaning of parks, or all that goes on in parks, or all that is represented by the National Park System or programs of the Service. Rick Smith did a service to have us all remember that, while still doing honor to Ken Burns and his team for developing and broadcasting this film.

Everybody appreciates how painful it can be for an individual to lose her or his land, because of public need. But overwhelmingly, American's support the creation of parks, including by buying the land. Only someone on the fringe who does not believe in the american government or in individual responsibility to his neighbors or in environmental protection believes America or the park system would be better if no private land were purchased from willing or unwilling sellers.

d-2 On January 15th, 2010: Land acquisition is not an abuse. It is not a compromise against freedom. It is not in contrast with the American Revolution, for goodness sake. Anyone who is a patriot knows the US Constitution provides for eminent domain takings of land, to be fully compensated. No nation can function as a nation if critical national needs are beyond the reach of the people's government. It is silly to argue about taking land for parks as if it is an aberration. Land is taken for highways, for military bases, for dams, or sanitation systems. Within limits, the government even has the right to regulate land use without compensation, for example in cases where one person's use of the land can damage the needs of all, such as when development on wetlands can pollute the water for all. In the entire history of Anglo Saxon law, if you damage your neighbor's land by the way you use yours, it is a violation and can be stopped by law... Only someone on the fringe who does not believe in the american government or in individual responsibility to his neighbors or in environmental protection believes America or the park system would be better if no private land were purchased from willing or unwilling sellers.

Keeping one's own land despite the fact that someone else wants it certainly is a right. That is what the right of property ownership means. Pressure groups hijacking the power of government to seize land certainly is an aberration of civilization. American government was founded for the limited purpose of protecting people's rights, not as a means for controlling one group for the benefit of another that takes what it wants. This country and government were not founded to collectivize land for "parks", of which there were none.

Normal, decent people can enjoy scenery without going berserk and using it as an excuse to seize what they want for preservationism, dropping all context of rights, morality and civilized behavior. Moral objection to such abuse does not mean being on the "fringe". Moral objection to such arrogance is not "silly". It is the root of this country.

Using one's own land rather than preserving it is not "damage" to one's neighbor's land. Viros have extended the concept of "pollution" to mean anything they don't like and use it as an excuse to control everyone around them.

You do not have the right to seize someone else's property and you don't obtain such a "right" by ganging up on him in a group, calling yourself "democracy" while you parade yourself as representing the "public interest". There is no such entity as a "public" with an "interest", the public is only an abstraction referring to a group of individuals, each of which have the same rights to their freedom and their own interests. There is no such thing as a fair price of something that is not for sale. The government was not supposed to be your tool to bully other people.

The arrogant attitude by the statists in the park lobby that the rights of the individual are subordinate to their pressure group's cynical, ends-justifies-the-means political warfare is morally reprehensible. It has no place in this country. There is no "public need" for it and no justification for it. If you want to preserve land, then do it on your own time and money without making a religion out of it and without bullying and rolling other people.

NPS abuse of property owners is not "popular"; it is kept hidden. Just as in the nationwide, popular revolt against the Kelo Supreme Court decision, normal people are horrified when they learn, for example, what NPS did to the people whose property it took at Minute Man in the name of "commemorating" the beginning of the American Revolution for freedom from tyranny. They are horrified by both the abuse and the hypocrisy practiced by NPS and its apologists. Only those who have no regard for other people's rights don't care and find moral objections to such arrogant power to be "silly".

That is why NPS, which falsely claims to present history in its "education", to this day hides its own history at Minute Man and everywhere else it brutally trampled people the same way. NPS hides its abuse behind the scenery to protect its "image". It does not stand up and say, "for goodness sake every patriot knows the individual must be sacrificed to the group and this doesn't contradict the American Revolution." If they are ignorant and arrogantly evil enough to believe such statist nonsense they do know that it would not be tolerated.

This is why, to suppress controversy over a proposed expansion or new area, NPS and its boosters hide the record and the intended coercive means of acquisition, and is why they lie about a "willing seller policy" -- when they have to address the subject of means of acquisition at all -- to keep people quiet until it is too late to stop the takeover. It is why NPS and its boosters lied to the people they had targeted in the establishment of Minute Man 50 years ago and is why that political chicanery has not changed.

And it is why the Duncan/Burns film -- originated when Duncan was appointed by the Clinton administration to the board of the Congressionally created National Parks Foundation -- dishonestly "left out" so much of NPS history. The film is a promotion never intended as an independent, unbiased "documentary" at all.

Rick Smith's topic "what Ken Burns left out" certainly does deserve widespread public discussion, for the same reason that NPS and the apologists for its abuse don't want it.

Anon, please read something of the law. ANY country's law, or just the law of this country. From the beginning, the country IS the sovereign. In the United States, the people designed and restrained that governmental power, by extending rights to individuals, such as the right of compensation of lands acquired by the sovereign government, or reserving powers to the states and individuals not innumerated for the central government. No one ever eliminated the right of federal or state governments from buying, or taking, land with compensation. EVER. Some parks do not have the right to acquire land by condemnation, some do, because the legislation establishing them expressly provides for the limit.

Most people in using their land DO NOT damage the land rights of their neighbors. Again, it is silly to imply that I or anyone else is saying anything different. Extreme distortions is why cant is called 'extremist.' But when damage is happening because an owner believes she/he has an unrestrained license to do whatever she/he wants on that land, the government or fellow citizens can act, either through federal, state or civil action.

This HAS ALWAYS been true. If one prefers "romantic myth" to "silly" or whatever, fine. But your analysis NEVER has characterized the law in the United States.

The issue, in the takings case in Connecticut -- the concern -- is something altogether different. Regardless of how the Supreme Court actually ruled in that case, what has disturbed people over the years, since Robert Moses, is the idea that the sovereign's acquisition authority can be used NOT for public purposes, but for private development purposes. The concern was: was that CT development a public purpose at all? Is establishing a Development Corporation and permitting that entity the right to use governmental condemnations authority, and then to permit the corportation to flip the properties to a for-profit developer, constitutional? The restraint, if there will be one, on such practices does not get to the heart of what Anon. says it does, which is the right of the government to acquire land for public purposes. The fact that the national parks are run by the government and not by some corporation should be a distinction available to even those who avoid all consecutive thinking in their political passions.

Yes, as I said in my post, for the individual, a taking by government can be a horror. Government should really think twice, a hundred times before doing it. When the government recklessly displaces people for an unworthy project, people do become disaffected, even to the point of escalating hostility against government and fostering any number of preposterous political theorists. For several generations, condemnation has always been the last resort for the NPS, even when crucial properties are at stake. In the case of Flight 93, where the Bush White House and the Congress officially only recently passed a law to permit a taking, the Obama Administration jumped in to hold back that park's determination to take the land even for this sacred shrine. The NPS remembers horror stories when Army Corps of Engineers land employees who originally had been working to build an Army Corps dam at the Delaware Water Gap, just switch over to keep buying land when congress decided they wanted a park instead of a Corps dam and reservation. Well, the acquisition style of the Army Corps destroyed the peace in those communities, as every cabin that did not meet local zoning requirements was snapped up, and story after story of heartbreak came out. The NPS regained control over that acquisition and stopped the takings. Despite this, the Congressman behind all this, who was first defeated, was later reelected in the same district.

It is interesting to me that extreme libertarians, those who go to the point of suggesting that the federal government should have NO authority to acquire private land, don't seem to challenge the right of the Corps of Engineers when they routinely employ far more brutal tactics in acquition than the NPS ever would. Or, the highway department. Or Port Authorities for port or LNG development. No, they take on the national park service, which unlike those agencies still has a checkerboard of private lands within parks that are 10's of years old, and uses taking as the last not the first tactic. Highways aren't built with private land astride them, but we only hear about parks. It is pretty obvious what the real agenda is.

Government and the american people need to be mindful of worst case examples of the abuse of power, and should be vigilant to eliminate excess.

But the American people know how lands are acquired for roads, for military bases, for parks, and with caution and care generally support them. The park service retains the consent of the governed not by hiding it, as Anon says, but by good steps the people support. The silliest thing of all is to suggest that the Burns film should have been a history of the condemnation process. Throughout the Burns film he shows the tension between privatizing the land or setting it aside for public purposes. For most of the parks Burns chose, the lands already were in federal ownership. In much of the west, the private land holdings only happened at the great effort and subsidy of the federal government, who did everything it could, including practically giving public land away to private owners, & promoting and subsidizing infrastructure development, just to get individuals to go out there. There are exceptions of course, but modern libertarian romantics seem to envision themselves as Jim Bridgers or Robin Hoods, when in fact these supposedly rugged individualists were subsidized into existence. No, we don't hear about that.

It would be interesting to see how long these individualists would last if they really were on their own, and lacked the sustaining power of liberal democracies like the United States. I know the perfect part of Afghanistan you should try your theories, and luck, on. Long may you wave.

Last anon--

Maybe you think that I feel that Burns should have devoted large sections of his film to your, well, unusual theories of property ownership. I do not. I agree with d-2. In the vast majority of cases that the NPS has used condemnation authority to acquire land, it happened because the land in question was about to be altered so that it would no longer serve conservation or preservation piurposes. It was almost always within the boundaries of a congresionally-authorized park area. No, you're going to have to take your arguments against land acquistion somewhere else. The NPS is pretty clean in this area.

Rick Smith

anon: You seem to speak like an intelligent person and you seem to know of at least some history. So, I challenge you to combine the two with your ideals on land rights and hopefully a little bit of logic which should make your argument self-defeating. How can any of the nearly all Anglo/Euro property owners you so defend lay claim to one parcel when said land was never for sale to begin with. Was not only originally taken; was not only not compensated; but was done so at the murder of men, women, children who were merely using the land for sustenance. Pick a better fight my friend; you'll lose this one everytime!

Word games about a policy of condemnation used only as a "last resort" means "agree" to sell or NPS will take it. Holding a gun to the head of an unwilling seller is eminent domain. Yet people who give up under this threat are dishonestly called "willing sellers" so that NPS can pretend its acquisition is something other than what it is. Such was the case with the Flight 93 takings -- faced with adverse press coverage the Obama administration wanted to create an appearance of "willing sellers" while ensuring that no one had a choice but to "agree" to sell.

The Kelo Supreme Court decision extended the elastic notion of "public use" to "public purpose" seizing and transferring private property to those who will pay higher taxes in exchange for the land they develop. The essential similarities with NPS expansionism is allowing a pressure group to gang up on a minority in the name of "public interest". In both cases, well-heeled, politically-connected insiders use the power of government to take what they want, as has been the history of NPS expansion from the beginning.

The Duncan/Burns film did not report the policies of arrogant coercion throughout NPS history. It hid them. The film is promotion, not an unbiased documentary. It repeatedly belittled and disparaged private land and industry and ignored the use of condemnation except for the Smoky Mountains, at which the population displacement is too well known to ignore -- and that was given only a minute and quarter and dismissed as the irrelevant ancient past as if it hadn't been done all over the country to the present day. The park lobby doesn't want the public to know what actually happened to so many people -- including at the parks featured in the film promotion. Even the portion on Indian removal specifically for parks in the west was a whitewash.

For all the rambling sophistry, d-2 has clearly revealed that he is an authoritarian holding that government power, to be used for his purposes, is above all else. He claims that in the US "sovereign government" came first, only "extending rights to individuals" as some kind of gift that can be revoked at any time instead of recognizing and protecting our rights. He claims that individuals settling unowned land in the west were "given" "public" land through "great effort and subsidy of the federal government". He knows fully well that "taking by government can be a horror" but he doesn't care -- shut up and do as your told.

All of that is an obscenely statist, collectivist inversion of the history and purpose of the founding of this country and the proper relationship between the individual and government -- whose proper purpose is to protect our natural rights as individual human beings, not to exercise "sovereign" control over us. In contrast to other governments around the world, in this country private individuals were to be free to act, limited only in what we can't do to others -- not limited to what we can do only by permission. Government was to be limited in what it can and must do, not acting out of discretionary policies. It was to be a government of law and not men.

But this NPS insider d-2 cynically sees government as a tool to coercively take what he wants. That makes him and his cohorts a personal, physical threat to every innocent person, just as the NPS acquisition agenda to take over more private property is a physical threat to anyone in its way. They should be treated accordingly in response to the war they have declared on us. It is morally reprehensible. This is supposed to be America.

With unspeakable, cynical arrogance d-2 contemptuously denigrates and personally smears those who reject his avowed authoritarianism as "silly", "fringe", "extremist", "Robin Hoods", hopelessly "romantic" and worthy only of banishment to "Afghanistan" -- a false alternative to his rabid progressive statism foisted on us in the name of "liberal democracy". NPS officials and lobbyists have a long history of the same arrogance, which continues today; it didn't start or end with Army Corps of "Engineers" acquisition officers (who were fully supported by NPS officials).

What a great way to "promote" parks. How fitting that d-2, an NPS pressure group insider, is an apologist for the NPS abuse that normal, decent people find abhorent -- when they are allowed to find out about what NPS and its boosters normally try to hide from the public. What an ambassador for parks this one is.

Rick Smith
On January 16th, 2010

Last anon--

Maybe you think that I feel that Burns should have devoted large sections of his film to your, well, unusual theories of property ownership. I do not.


There is nothing "unusual" in objecting to preservationists using the government to seize private property, not in this country. The Duncan/Burns film was dishonest in not reporting that NPS has harmed people whose property it has seized for a century all over the country. Duncan did this because the park lobby doesn't want the public to know it; the film is an NPS promotion, not an independent documentary. No one said that the film should have "devoted large sections" to "unusual theories of property ownership". That is a strawman.

In an ironic way it is better that the film didn't deal with the subject because given the purpose and standards used it would have been an even bigger whitewash.

I agree with d-2. In the vast majority of cases that the NPS has used condemnation authority to acquire land, it happened because the land in question was about to be altered so that it would no longer serve conservation or preservation piurposes.

NPS has a long record of seizing homes, businesses and farms. But neither does a property owner "altering" his own property serve as an excuse to take it.

It was almost always within the boundaries of a congresionally-authorized park area. No, you're going to have to take your arguments against land acquistion somewhere else. The NPS is pretty clean in this area.

NPS had better restrict its acquisitions to "Congressionally authorized boundaries" because that is the only place it has legal authority to do so, but it has also been known to redraw boundaries after the legislation, such as at Acadia.

Moreover, NPS repeatedly interprets Congressional authorization to mean it should exercise its authority to the maximum extent possible. This illustrates why such awesome discretionary power should not be delegated to a bureaucracy, let alone one backed with a well-financed political lobby with an anti-private property agenda.

The arrogance of the apologists for NPS abuse is unspeakable. They waver between dishonest denial and openly arrogant advocacy. But what they do to people is usually kept strategically hidden, especially in their slick media campaigns for NPS expansions, because they know very well how controversial these practices are when people know the truth. They deceive even their own allies to keep those with a conscience from balking. NPS is not "clean"; it is morally repugnant. Normal people have no difficulty seeing this when they learn what NPS does to people, despite the practice of NPS lobbyists who cynically try to marginalize their victims by demeaning, mocking and caricaturing those who object.

Blackfeet Dreamer
On January 21st, 2010

anon: You seem to speak like an intelligent person and you seem to know of at least some history. So, I challenge you to combine the two with your ideals on land rights and hopefully a little bit of logic which should make your argument self-defeating. How can any of the nearly all Anglo/Euro property owners you so defend lay claim to one parcel when said land was never for sale to begin with. Was not only originally taken; was not only not compensated; but was done so at the murder of men, women, children who were merely using the land for sustenance. Pick a better fight my friend; you'll lose this one everytime!

This is the standard, tired sophistry attempting to deny all property rights because the land was allegedly "stolen" from Indians. The Indians had a stone age tribalist culture that did not recognize property rights. Their tribes exercised a primitive kind of political control over the people within a region, not a protection of their property rights, of which they had no concept. There was nothing to "steal". That was not the "fault" of any particular person, Indian or not; it was simply the primitive state they were all born into at that stage of human evolution in that region.

European settlers had as much right as anyone to use and claim the land in what was an extremely sparsely populated region. They did not "steal" it. There was no moral primacy to primitivist tribal control over anyone entering the region. The establishment of the institution of property rights and eventually the American form of government protecting the rights of the individual, to the extent it succeeded, was an enormous improvement for mankind, including descendants of the Indians, lifting humanity out of the stone ages and feudalism to civilization.

That is not to say that injustices were not committed or that the earliest approaches, such as European royalty handing out land grants, was the best or even proper. Europe was out of the Stone Age and the Dark Ages but still pre-Enlightenment individualist. It took time for a better system and more knowledge to evolve. That does not mean that no property rights are valid now simply because the system had to be invented and refined through evolution before civilization could rise out of the cave, the teepee, and the feudal castle. We are beneficiaries of the progress, not slaves to the past.

Those who deny property rights on such fallacious reasoning are denying property rights for all time. They are statists and collectivists ideologically opposed to property rights, disingenuous in their alleged concern for human rights. They feign concern for rights while denying them.

It is not surprising that such sophistry in the guise of concern for rights occasionally shows up to rationalize seizing property for government preservationism; the preservationists don't want to have to defend their own trampling of other people's rights. They can't defend it. They baldly deny it, either by denying that it happens or by denying that there are rights to trample or both. They constantly look for excuses to flim flam the public to deny what they are doing and what they want to do to people next. Indian wars centuries ago have nothing to do with us. They have nothing to with NPS stealing people's land in America and do not justify it.

Anon--

Just to be clear. The NPS has no authority to redraw boundaries. That is only done by the Congress, the representatives of the very people you are seekinjg to protect.

Rick Smith


Dear Anonymous of Jan 24:

It seems to me you are just asserting unreal theories, as if they are real. Just saying it does not make it true. Why don't you cite the statute, the constitutional Article or Amendment, or the court case as
precedent? Because both history and law are pretty clear you are wrong on almost every assertion you make about land rights.

When in history, or where in the law, has the absolute right of the federal and state governments to take private land for public purpose been blocked? The only restriction is that the government has to pay for it.

Where has the NPS taken land that was not authorized by Congress? Where, since you cite Acadia National Park, did the NPS take any land without first having legal direction/legal authorizaton to do so? Acadia has unusual land acquisition authority, different from most parks. Most parks simply provide that the NPS has authority to acquire land within the boundary. Acadia did not have typical boundaries, and did not have typical land acquisition rules, AND Congress has changed both the boundary rules and the acquition rules from time to time. But the NPS has always only acquired land when Congress has authorized it by law. There is authority for the NPS to acquire land outside boundaries, and add the land to the park, for something called 'minor boundary adjustments,' which are strictly limited to a small percentage of the total land within the boundary, combined with elaborate reporting requirements back to Congress, plus a Congressional appropriation to do so.

A very few parks do not have boundaries, but in those cases Congress specified what particular properties the NPS should own. Congress has also given the President the right to declare a national monument on public land, and buy any parcels of private land (typically, mining claims or other inholding previously owned by the government). But in all these cases, even with the unusual exceptions, no land is ever acquired without prior law authorizing the NPS to do so.

The history of land rights and the development of civilization is in fact just the opposite of what you say. As civilizations became more sophisticated, the sovereign was always granted the right to acquire
property. The sovereign sometimes placed restrictions on itself, such as the right of the individual to be compensated, or a requirement that a government agency only require land where authorized by Congress, or by extending a right to an individual to sue the government, and collect. These rights exist because they were provided by the sovereign and built into the government. Anon, what actual provision of law can you cite that says any different? Just by calling names ( "statist" ! ) to people who ask for facts does not make you right.

Most curiously, you have never in your posts debated my point about other government taking actions, for roads or for military bases or for or levies or for other government purposes. Can you, or will you do so and cite the law rather than calling names? Because if you accept that the government has a right and duty to act to acquire land for public purposes, then the only remaining question gets to the heart of why Burns even called it "America's Best Idea." The WHOLE POINT of that name is that in the United States of America, unlike all countries previously, sovereign authority decided that national parks is a public purpose equal to all those other purposes.

It seems clear you think Americans would rather have seen a film on an extreme and highly technical analysis of private land rights. Without the extremism or technical details, Burns said all he honestly needed to say.

It was clear in the film that the alternative for Yellowstone was mining or possibly homesteading or logging. In park after park, where Burns set out the conflict over the birth of each park, typically the alternative is private land. Except, when the alternative was a different kind of federal land development reservation, like a dam or a logging lease. There was nothing held back, and Americans are not so dumb that they don't get it. "America's Best Idea" IS the idea of a federal reservation, but for a new public purpose: preservation and enjoyment. For goodness sake, it was even in the title !

So, where are your facts? And, why do you not also attack government land acquisition of land for military bases or for roads, only for parks?? And, despite your brushing aside the points made by Blackfeet Dreamer, again citing no basis of support for your assertions (making me wonder: do people who know nothing about American Indian law just get into a room together and make this stuff up about the meaning of land to Native peoples??), I would note that unlike your stuff there actually are laws and constitutional provisions that address Indian land rights.

On the issue of parks and property rights, I wrote a 4-part essay a couple years ago:

John Locke, Yellowstone, and the Dogma of the Right to Private Property
(This is a four part series of essays: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. The title is pretty telling. I laid out the project in this prologue.)

I will say that it neither takes the point of view that there is any such thing as private property rights nor government rights to property; that in fact the so-called "right" to property either considered as belonging to a government or an individual is a fiction based in fallacy. I explore the issue as it arises in Yellowstone, the argument for property rights, the argument against them, and what it means to act and live in a world without them. My argument is neither statist or individualist; that's really the dichotomy that I'm ultimately rejecting.

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

Rick Smith:
Just to be clear. The NPS has no authority to redraw boundaries. That is only done by the Congress, the representatives of the very people you are seekinjg to protect.

I remember when Pinnacles National Monument expanded after purchasing the formerly private Pinnacles Campground. I'm not sure if the procedure might be different since that's a national monument where the establishing authority can be from presidential decree. From what I can tell, there was no eminent domain action although I don't know if Congressional action was needed to make the purchase and/or expand the boundaries. I think the owner just felt like selling, although I'm not sure who's idea it was.

I'd also note that it's not a typical NPS campground. It's got full RV hookups and a pool. From seeing it from a road, it almost seemed like a KOA - sort of low on trees.

I also agree that some people seem to have some real disagreements about the use of eminent domain. Its use by the government (especially for a clearly public purpose such as an NPS site) is not trampling anyone's rights. The legal authority for eminent domain is clearly in the 5th Amendment to the US Constitution. I'm not saying it's easy. I understand that it can be emotionally painful for unwilling sellers to be forced to sell.

I think a more interesting topic is the psychology of above -anon-. As for me, I'm proud of the system we have. I don't want to even think of an America without public land and National Parks.

Rick Smith On January 25th, 2010
Just to be clear. The NPS has no authority to redraw boundaries. That is only done by the Congress, the representatives of the very people you are seekinjg to protect.

NPS certainly isn't supposed to do that, but the politics of how it works in practice doesn't operate that way. In the case I cited at Acadia, after the 1986 legislation restricting NPS acquisition to defined boundaries, NPS redefined the boundary in accordance with its own desires and re-interpretation of lines penciled on the map. Property owners had further been assured by NPS before the legislation passed, in accordance with the same map, that they were not included. Years later NPS threatened the owners, some of whom had bought their property relying on NPS's own previous assurance, with condemnation if they built on their own land. The injustice became a major controversy and the Citizens Advisory Commission subsequently voted in favor of the property owners, recommending that Congress restore the boundary if NPS would not rescind its revised "interpretation". The park pressure groups threatened that if such legislation came before Congress they would re-open the boundaries for another controversial expansion, forcing the towns and other supporters of the victims to back down politically. The purpose of the 1986 boundary was to constrain the cancerous growth of Acadia, which had previously been limited only to 'donations and exchanges' within a couple of entire counties. The constrained boundary was extremely difficult to establish, taking George Mitchell over 10 years to obtain the "compromise", and normal people did not want to go through that battle again knowing that preservationists were drooling over the possibility of grabbing more land.

This abuse, which was widely reported within the state, is an example of how NPS arrogant behavior, coupled with a context of Washington insider politics and pressure groups, tramples the rights of individuals and why the threat of NPS expansion is so controversial. The insiders act as if the exercise of political power "legally" using laws rigged for their own benefit is self-justifying, which as normal people know, it certainly is not and has not been so regarded from the very beginning of this country, where "might does not make right" and the act of getting away with it does not justify it.

This incident at Acadia, though relatively recent, is particularly relevant to the omissions in the Duncan/Burns film because Acadia was one of the parks focused on in the film. The notion promoted, that Acadia was established without controversy and solely as a "gift" to the nation, is false and misleading for several reasons spanning its entire history. But the film was intended as a promotion of NPS, not a documentary on history. It is an example of Duncan and Burns misleading viewers into not realizing that condemnation and other pressure tactics are routinely used -- directly and through threats -- to take private property and that the purpose is special interest preservationism just as ugly as the Kelo decision. Such subjects were omitted because NPS behavior could not have been objectively described nor the moral controversy acknowledged if the film were to succeed in its intended political promotion of NPS.

Trying to find the answer to curious point brought up when we were watching this documentary. Hoping some (late) reader or follower of this post might have figured it out. On the subject of what Mr. Burns left out, he mentions in the Making Of documentary that there are 58 National Parks, & that he filmed in 53 of them. WHICH FIVE DIDN'T HE GET??? It just keeps tickling my curiosity bone! Thanks in advance.

It seems that on our families recent trips to several of our National Parks there is a lack of Americans visiting them. Most of the visitors appear to be tourists from other countries. We comment on all the time-- where are the American people?? Why don't they appreciate these beautiful parks?? It is true that if future generations don't get out and develope a love for our wild places there will be no one to protect them.Most people at my workplace know little or nothing about our Nat. Park system. Vacation to them is going to Disney World or Las Vagas sadly.

I would posit that the reason there are few blacks and Hispanics in the parks is that those minorities tend to have low incomes. Visiting the parks has gotten increasingly expensive over the years. In Yosemite, a tent at Tuolumne Meadows in the summer goes for $130 to $150 per night. Meals there are expensive. Yosemite Lodge is roughly $200 per night. Hiking the High Sierra Camps costs $160 per person per night. Lodging outside the park is similarly expensive. As a consequence, from my observation, visitors fall into two categories. Backpackers and tent campers who tend to be younger. Those staying at DNC properties are middle-aged and up. But with lodging at Yosemite almost always full, DNC and the owners of the lodgings on the park borders, have no incentive to reduce rates.

Dick, I've noted before about how the economy and how not confident our fellow citizens are in what's coming down the road. I've been in the middle of the second most visited NP in the country and I've chronicled things since '07 until now. Majority of visiters right now are European and Eastern European. It's the time of year when most Europeans take their vacations but the decline of US visitors is directly related to our economy, I believe. I have encouraged the environmental community to empathise and move toward a better working relationship with the economic, private sector side. We are one country, despite many that prefer it be divided into their own little sacred deals.