You are here

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.


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.


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.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide

Recent Forum Comments