October 19, 2009

The Ken Burns Series on America's National Parks

Yosemite valley, Yosemite National Park, Calif...Image via Wikipedia

I've been watching The National Parks: America's Best Idea on PBS when I can remember to catch it, and I must confess being a bit surprised by all the emotion it has brought up. I have experienced pride and awe mixed with longing, regret, and anger. Primarily, it makes me long for the long gone days of my childhood when my family and I visited many of the Western parks, as well as countless state parks. It was disheartening to realize that I have done an incredibly poor job of continuing to explore America's many natural treasures in my adult years. Sure, it is easy to blame work for getting in the way, but that only means that it hasn't been much of a priority. For that, I am ashamed.

The series has also made me feel proud to be part of a country that fought so hard to establish these parks and open them to the public. I have not visited all the national parks, but I have made it to many of them. The sense of awe and grandeur one experiences in such places of beauty is all the more appreciated when one realizes what our ancestors had to go through in order to establish and maintain the parks system. Again and again, I found myself realizing how important it is that current generations protect these parks for future generations to enjoy. They are, after all, an essential part of what it means to be an American.

I have also been forced to recognize that most of the opposition to the parks, historically and today, has come from those who are convinced that all lands should be privatized (i.e., conservatives). Much as they now wish to prevent impoverished Americans from accessing affordable health care, they would just as soon fence of these parks and charge exorbitant entry fees or simply turn them into parking lots and high-rises. Their selfishness is repugnant.

Politics aside, it is clear that our national parks do not receive the same attention they once did. Visitors abound, but budgets have been cut deeply. Litter has become a ubiquitous sight at the parks, as large numbers of people now view the world as their personal garbage can. Visiting a park today, especially during their peak season, can be as much about observing human nature as it is about taking in the natural beauty.

Our national parks are such a vital part of the American experience that I hope this series stimulates renewed interest in and willingness to support the parks. If you have not yet had the opportunity to visit these parks, find the one nearest to you and start there. As for me, well, I think my to-do list just got a bit longer.