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‘National Parks’ series a conservation windfall

Conservationists hope the PBS documentary will lure more attention to national parks such as Mount Rainier, above. (File / The Spokesman-Review)
Conservationists hope the PBS documentary will lure more attention to national parks such as Mount Rainier, above. (File / The Spokesman-Review)

The buildup to last Sunday’s PBS premiere of “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” was the conservation community’s equivalent of the build-up to the Super Bowl.

Filmmakers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan had traveled back and forth across the country, then back again, touting their six-episode, 12-hour documentary.

Local PBS stations carrying the program planned parties, created companion shows and sent out news releases.

KSPS-TV in Spokane teamed with Mountain Gear and Spokane Parks and Recreation starting in midsummer with a series of weekly programs – many of them in Riverfront Park – geared to teaching families how to get outdoors for camping and recreation.

The local spinoffs continue with national park rangers coming this month to make presentations to fifth-graders in Spokane’s public schools. Viewers who sign up on the KSPS Web site have a chance to win a fully outfitted family camping trip to Glacier National Park next summer.

The Sierra Club has kicked off a similar sweepstake on a national level for a trip to Yosemite.

Groups such as Washington’s National Park Fund used the excitement – plus an appearance by Burns and Duncan – to energize fundraisers to help its mission of supporting the parks.

The bipartisan National Parks Second Century Commission chose last week to release its recommendation to Congress that spending on national parks should be increased by at least $700 million over the next seven years.

The independent panel also urged President Barack Obama to appoint a panel charged with promoting the parks and raising private money in time for the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016 and called for an expansion of the National Park Service’s mission, making education an explicit part of the agency for the first time.

All too often, the Super Bowl fails to live up to the pregame hype. This national parks series, however, is living up to the billing.

If you didn’t see last Sunday’s premier, you’ll have more opportunities as the series continues through the following weeks and repeats in spring.

If you did see the premier you know this isn’t the typical collection of national parks films about the whimsical ways of otters or the natural history of grizzly bears.

The documentary is heavy on research into the people and issues behind the scenes. It spotlights the political hurdles to protecting parks, past and present.

The series gives the public a chance to be intrigued as well as informed and empowered.

Burns has justifiably gained fame as one of America’s best documentary filmmakers with his documentary series “The Civil War” and “Baseball,” the two most-watched series on public television. He gives our national parks the same treatment, capturing the beauty of our parks within a historical framework.

The film, 10 years in the making, tells the story of America’s best-known and most-loved public lands. Using voices past and present, the film details the efforts to protect these lands for future generations, the struggles to make that happen and the attempts to derail those same efforts. It traces the successes and mistakes during the first 150 years of the concept of national parks.

More than 79 million acres within 391 units are under the auspices of the National Park Service. The stories go beyond John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt and other obvious movers and shakers.

One of the most compelling is the story of Iwao Matsushita and his wife, Hanaye. The Seattle couple took hundreds of photos, home movies and kept journals to document their trips to Mount Rainier National Park in the 1920s and 1930s. The memories of their trips to the place they called “Holy Mountain” allowed the couple to remain connected after being sent to different internment camps after the start of World War II.

“This is a story of ideas and individuals,” Burns said when interviewed in April. “All of them describe their moment of transformation.”

“Everyone who visits national parks can build their own connection with them, that’s part of the beauty,” said Randy King, acting superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park.

The films serve as a reminder to park detractors of the high value preceding generations placed on setting aside and protecting these lands. The film points repeatedly to “the mistake of Niagara Falls,” where developers were able to turn a natural wonder into a disconnected blend of nature’s power, T-shirt shops and wax museums.

Perhaps more important, the film will be an introduction to those who have yet to visit a park.

That, Duncan said in April, was one of his greatest hopes for the film.

“The national parks are the application of the Declaration of Independence to the landscape,” he said. “You own these parks by virtue of being an American.”

Jeffrey P. Mayor of the Tacoma News Tribune and Outdoors editor Rich Landers contributed to this report.

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