Filmmaker Ken Burns on 100 years of the National Park Service

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The National Park Service is now 100 years old. On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, formally establishing the NPS within the Department of the Interior. Now, the agency manages 59 U.S. national parks and numerous national monuments.

Filmmaker Ken Burns spent ten years exploring and filming these parks, for his documentary series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea

KCRW’s Larry Perel spoke with Burns about how, 100 years later, the NPS is just as relevant as ever.

KCRW: In your film, a park ranger named Shelton Johnson describes the sense of awe he feels when in Yosemite. He says it’s like stepping back in time and feeling alone, yet a part of something greater. What role does the NPS play in ensuring we retain that sense of awe?

Burns: At the heart of the Organic Act was this ultimate paradox: how can we leave this for the enjoyment of all people, but also leave these places unimpaired for future generations to enjoy? There’s been a wonderful tension. In our distracted media culture, just reminding people of their extraordinary inheritance is the first task. It’s one of education.

Looking back over the last 100 years, what do you think has been the NPS’s greatest achievement?

In Yosemite, a beautiful valley was dammed to provide water for San Francisco. Hetch Hetchy is still on the minds of several environmentalists, who would like to take the dam down and restore that pristine valley. Part of the creation of the National Park Service was to find a permanent steward – to create these rangers and a structure to take care of these special places. The great news is that over the last 100 years, there hasn’t been another Hetch Hetchy.

Santa Barbara and Ventura County are lucky to have the Channel Islands National Park in their backyard. But, it’s not cheap to get out to the islands. Unless you have your own boat, it costs $60-$100 for a ferry ride. Are the national parks  unattainable for lower income Americans?

The Channel Islands may be. That’s the function of what they are and our desire to try to preserve an exquisite, but very fragile, ecosystem. But, there are other places in which I would submit overall the national parks are one of the best travel bargains you could possibly have. It represents an opportunity for folks in every part of the country to visit, very inexpensively, the property they co-own with everybody else.

We’re in the middle of presidential race, and our nation appears, in many ways, more divided than it’s ever been. Do you feel the national parks lean to any political side?

Not at all. [Republican] Abraham Lincoln signed the law into existence that created Yosemite Park. [Republican] Grant signed in Yellowstone. [Republican] Theodore Roosevelt was considered a great steward of the national parks. For most Americans, [the national parks] ought not be a political football. As NPS writer Robert Sterling Yard said, it’s a place where you can go and just be an American.

Ken Burns will be in Santa Barbara on Sunday, October 2nd, as part of UCSB Arts & Lectures. His six-part film will screen for free at the Granada Theater on September 24th and 25th.