Our best idea

  • Early tourist at Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, c. 1902.

    Library of Congress

Dayton Duncan was an impressionable 9-year-old when he made his first journey into the West's national parks. He had the kind of life-changing experience that many people have enjoyed in the parks. Beginning Sept. 27, it will pay off in 12 hours of evocative public television, exploring how land conservation is often inspired by personal passion.

Duncan's adventure began in 1959, when he went on a family car trip from his Iowa home. He and his parents and 12-year-old sister roamed the mysterious Badlands of South Dakota and saw the beautiful Grand Teton and Rocky Mountain parks. In a desert canyon in Dinosaur National Monument, part of the parks system, he slept on a Green River sandbar. Arriving in Yellowstone a couple of days after an earthquake killed 28 people, he saw how the lethal mudslides had created a shimmering new lake.

It was the only significant vacation Duncan had while growing up (his family wasn't well off), and he says it forged "a very powerful emotional connection" between him and the parks. The memories lingered even as he went east for college, settled in New Hampshire and worked as a staffer for Democratic Party leaders. Eventually he shifted to writing books and documentary films, often working with a neighbor, Ken Burns, the leading public-TV investigator of our national history.

Duncan has collaborated with Burns on wide-ranging documentaries whose subjects include the Civil War, baseball and jazz. But Duncan remained fascinated with the West. He wrote at least six books on the region as well as the script for Burns' blow-by-blow account of the Lewis and Clark expedition. And he was co-writer of The West, Burns' sweeping 12-hour series on the European-immigrant takeover and its toll on Native Americans. (Both documentaries debuted in the mid-1990s and are available on DVD as well as in regular rebroadcasts.)

For the last 11 years, off and on, Duncan has worked on the culmination of his first trip to the parks -- a documentary on the history of the park system, or as Duncan describes it, "the arc of the national park idea, which began in the West." He enlisted Burns and they've been filming The National Parks: America's Best Idea for six years, ranging from Florida to Alaska with major stops in the iconic Western parks.

They highlight many historical photos and figures, including Wallace Stegner, the Western writer who coined the "best idea" phrase. Yet their findings about the West's conservation politics are still relevant these days.

As Duncan says in an interview, this "uniquely American idea" took hold first in the West (with the establishment of Yellowstone in 1872) because our region had the wildest remaining landscapes. It came from a combination of early enthusiasts such as John Muir in Yosemite, crass business interests (railroads hoping to benefit from tourist traffic) and national pride (Europe had the Parthenon and the Louvre, but our nation had spectacular natural scenery).

The idea was democratic: Congress and presidents preserved the parks for the general public. Even so, locals often objected, fearing the parks meant too much federal control. Duncan sums up the stages: "Local resistance at first, then grudging acceptance, then (as Arizona did with the Grand Canyon) they put it on the license plates."

"People from all walks of life fought long, lonely and difficult battles" to establish parks, Duncan says. They include George Melendez Wright, a Hispanic naturalist who spent four years in the 1930s driving 11,000 miles assessing wildlife in Western parks. He pushed park managers to stop killing predators and feeding garbage to bears, to "preserve wildlife in (a) natural state."

The park idea has become popular -- Yellowstone set a record with 900,515 visitors in July alone. Modern threats include uranium mining in Grand Canyon's watershed and the slaughter of Yellowstone bison that stray onto national forest.

Duncan revisits Western parks frequently with his wife, Dianne, and their two children -- repeating the "formative experience" he had as a kid. Many families do the same "intergenerational handoff," he says. Parks are a touchstone -- landscapes preserved as well as possible even as the rest of the world is wrenched by all kinds of changes. Conservation doesn't just happen, Duncan concludes; it requires advocacy year after year.

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