Ken Burns, Documentarian

The veteran filmmaker’s The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, is a 12-hour epic 10 years in the making that tackles the history and significance of America’s crown jewels.

Before there was the History Channel, there was Ken Burns. The veteran filmmaker’s exhaustive PBS documentaries on all-American subjects like baseball, jazz and the Civil War have given Americans a deep, visual connection to their unique history. Beginning September 27, 2009, PBS will air his latest, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, a 12-hour epic 10 years in the making that tackles the history and significance of America’s crown jewels.

E Magazine: What’s winning out in our national parks—conservation or recreation?

Ken Burns: There’s a paradox at the core of our park ideals: They’re for the enjoyment of everyone, but also to be preserved for all time. Those are in direct contradiction to one another, but it’s a constantly shifting thing. Just as in our own political life, when Thomas Jefferson said, “All men are created equal,” he meant all white men of property, free of debt—that is not what we mean today. We have to reconcile these things constantly, and remember that our stewardship is not a fixed idea, it’s an evolving one.

2. E: How much should we worry about increasing motorization and over-visitation?
We know that many of the parks were reconfigured to be seen out the windshield of an automobile. I mean, you can’t find a better location to take a photograph of Yosemite Valley than from the turnout there, which was made for automobiles—or actually, even before that, for wagons. So I think this is democratic. There are people who breeze through and people who backpack for weeks. Stephen Mather, the first National Park Service director, was finding his employees and friends outraged that so many people were coming in. They were called the “Tin Canners’ because they would leave their tin cans. Mather said, “I don’t care. I can pick up the tin cans, but I’ve made a new convert.”

E: Is Mather the “great man” of national parks history?

KB: That’s John Muir. Nobody else comes close. He’s up in the top-10 pantheon of great Americans with Lincoln, Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Robinson, Louis Armstrong and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

E: How healthy are the parks right now?

KB: They need a lot of attention, and they need a lot of money. I’m hoping the Obama administration will recognize, as Franklin Roosevelt did, that by investing in the parks you get double the bang for your buck, not only by putting people to work, but also by improving something that glues Americans together.

E: Any favorite parks after 10 years?

KB: My dad took me to Shenandoah when I was five or six, just the two of us. My first walk into Yosemite, I will never forget for as long as I live. But you know, the Grand Canyon is like Babe Ruth in baseball or the Beatles in music. You always have to start out by saying, “besides Babe Ruth
” or “besides the Beatles.”