Thursday, October 1, 2009

Our National Parks: America's Best Idea

Our National Parks: America's Best Idea

Watching Ken Burn's documentary, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea".

I expected it to be a travelogue, showing sights of our beautiful land. It is so much more.

The history of our National Parks threads deeply and strikingly through all the major social and political issues our country has experienced since the late 1800's: war, exploration, racial prejudice, grazing rights, state's rights, the depression, the New Deal, executive branch versus legislative, beauty, Native Americans, Japanese internment, the arts, welfare...

These issues didn't simply exist while National Parks and National Monuments were being established...the issues were central to the creation of parks, and the parks were central to the issues. In some cases, the parks changed social and political thought and work.

Many of the same outcries we hear today accompanied the battles to establish our most dearly loved National Parks: grazing rights, state's rights, species extinction, Native American treaty rights.

Can you imagine Olympia or King's Canyon or Sequoia being completely logged, farmed, and ranched? Paved roads, dirt roads, private roads, fences, convenience marts, resorts, golf courses?

I have to be honest and realize that I don't make my living directly from farming or ranching or building, so I'm undoubtedly biased.

But I can't help hearing the same echoes of outcry against wilderness areas and wildlife refuge areas, and imagining what it would be like if those cries had prevailed in Wyoming and we'd lost the opportunity to preserve precious, fragile parts of our country that should belong to all people in our country.

The establishment of our National Parks was not a smooth, clean, orderly social and political exercise of noble ideals...most of the parks were established through long, bitter, discordant disagreements, compromises, and political battles.

I especially appreciated the focus on Harold LeClaire Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior under Franklin D. Roosevelt.

I'd never heard of Harold Ickes...high school and college classes made no mention of him. Yet his work in establishing National Parks included fighting vicious racial prejudice and selfish, commercial interests of big business and state's rights. He was a white, male Republican politician, but he fought for what was right, no matter the skin color or the bank account or the political party.

Good film.