For the benefit and enjoyment of the people

Grand Canyon

At the age of three, I could hardly comprehend the vastness of the Grand Canyon. It did not look anything like my home in Michigan.

With my family I visited several national parks from the Great Smoky Mountains to Big Bend and Sequoia/Kings Canyon. Like many tourists, we snapped photos of the most iconic vistas, historic features or odd incongruous attractions – like the tunnel log in Sequoia National Park.

It wasn’t until years later, when I clumsily hoisted on an external frame overstuffed backpack and ventured off into the Yosemite National Park wilderness with a close friend, that I started to really appreciate wild places. As we hiked deeper into the woods and climbed in elevation, the low-pitched hoots of blue grouse frequently startled us. At the time, we had no idea what animal was making this mysterious call.

After that trip, I was starting to get it – the feeling of “transcendence” often referred to in Ken Burns’ new film “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” Naturally, the hero in the first episodes is John Muir (voice of Lee Stetson), who reached Yosemite the first time by walking 300 miles from the Bay Area. The final three in the series will air on PBS stations across the country through Friday. If you missed the previous episodes, don’t despair. You can view them for a limited time on the PBS Web site or buy the DVDs.

Just as this epic series about the national parks airs this week, last week the newly formed National Parks Second Century Commission released an extensive report on the condition of our national parks and a vision for the next century. With that, the San Francisco Chronicle published a story about the growing concern over youth not having access to or an interest in nature.

Then, with all this attention on our national parks, on Monday the New York Times ran an editorial on Ken Burns’ new documentary, making the case that the “best idea needs to be protected and celebrated.”

I don’t know about you, but I am getting the sense that there is an urgency around engaging more Americans to experience wild places and connect to our shared national heritage.

Serving as a reminder of the democratic principles of parks, the words of President Theodore Roosevelt are carved in an archway entrance to Yellowstone National Park and read, For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.

If you are in the Bay Area, KQED’s QUEST tells the story of the national park right here in our “backyards”.


QUEST on KQED Public Media.