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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 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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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[/url] (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.

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