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October 2009

National Parks Confidential: Q & A with Filmmaker Ken Burns

On the eve of his much-anticipated documentary, Ken Burns discusses the heroes and history of America's most precious wildlands–and the new challenges they face now.
ken burns telluride 445x260Burns at the Telluride Mountainfilm Fest

BP: Have you encountered God in the wilderness?
KB: I don’t know whether I’d call it God. But I know there’s a moment when you feel like you are seeing everything new. There is a vivifyingness to everything, a luminosity to the light. Suddenly, things take on a different relationship. You feel a kinship with all things. Those moments are fragmentary at best for most of us, but I’ve experienced them deeply in Yosemite and Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Denali, Glacier, and the Everglades.

BP: Early in the film, you discuss the displacement of Native Americans from Yosemite Valley. It’s a theme that repeats itself from park to park, but many people don’t know that the government took many parks by force. Do outdoor enthusiasts need to apologize for this?
KB: Our shame is in this acquisitive and rapacious thing that we’ve had in our bloodstream as a country that [has led us to] overdevelop this beautiful continent, this Garden of Eden. Thomas Jefferson thought it would take hundreds of generations to fill it up, but we’ve filled it up in less than five. And in every instance, we have displaced the native peoples who were there.

Dayton and I wanted to tell a very complicated story that tolerates the undertow that’s in there. You should understand the geological history, but also the history of native peoples. And [you should learn about] the battles with extractive and acquisitive interests that always look at a stream and say "dam," look at a stand of timber and think "board feet," look at a canyon and want to mine in it. Fortunately–and this is the great thing that Dayton and I want to salute–there were some places where Americans said, "No, we have to put up a fight and save them."

BP: One of your goals is to increase traffic to national parks. But getting the average citizen to visit can take some work, and the frontcountry can be a zoo. How realistic is it to expect casual tourists who may never leave the road to have an experience that will make them fans for life?
People have varying degrees of experience. Backpackers know the great, deep abiding power that John Muir knew, the power that comes from going out there to look at a flower for a minute or a day. But the country needs other constituencies coming if we want to save the parks. As filmmakers, we wanted to translate that power because we know that even a quick visit creates a chance for a transformative experience. We live in a world that erodes our attention, that distracts us from the real experience of nature. Just getting out there, even if you’re just driving through a park, is worthwhile.

BP: Let’s talk about that–about technology and distractions and nature deficit disorder.
KB: As a culture, we are at a hugely critical existential moment, one where people are suspended between being and doing–especially our children–because of this virtual world that we have created. People are just too distracted by their BlackBerries and Facebook. We need to make it a lot easier for families to take camping trips. If we don’t, you will find that backpackers are not a big enough constituency to resist the acquisitive and extractive interests.

BP: It sounds like you’re saying that parks could disappear.
Yes, exactly! Parks are like liberty–it takes eternal vigilance to protect them. We need to understand how ephemeral and transient they are.

BP: Muir and Roosevelt could not have anticipated global warming, which is altering landscapes and migration patterns. Should we be rethinking park boundaries, maybe to change them from geographical boundaries to something more fluid?
KB: When you see the retreat of the glaciers in Glacier, you realize how serious global warming is. Fortunately, the park idea has always expanded. At first, saving land was just about spectacular scenery. Then we began to understand habitat, and we expanded some parks to accommodate migration. Then species diversity became important, so we saved the Everglades. And now in some places we’ve created buffers by moving national forest land that borders a park from the Department of Agriculture to the NPS. I think you’re going to see more of that.

BP: All of these challenges–global warming, mining, Facebook, childhood obesity–what should backpackers do?
KB: I am deputizing you! I am an evangelist! I understand you’re in the choir, but you cannot just continue to go backpacking. You have to grab people at trailhead parking lots and let them know what awaits when they hike a bit farther in. You have to make converts.

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