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Don't Miss Ken Burns' The National Parks Documentary

If you missed the premiere last night on KQED of Ken Burns documentary series The National Parks: America's Best Idea, you still have time to catch up. There was also a companion program on KTEH that included an interview (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60wQUj5ZEL4) of Betty Soskin, a ranger at Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park, and incidentally the oldest ranger in the National Park Service.

KQED 9 HD will air the new Ken Burns documentary series The National Parks: America's Best Idea Sunday, September 27 through Friday, October 2, 2009, at 8pm, with a repeat at 10pm. View all airtimes and episode descriptions. The 12-hour, six-part documentary series is the story of an idea as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence and just as radical: that the most special places in the nation should be preserved, not for royalty or the rich, but for everyone.

This series should be of particular interest to Richmonders because we have a national park located right here, and many residents live in it (Atchison Village), work in it (Ford Assembly Building) or eat in it (The Boiler House Restaurant). Last night’s episode largely featured Yosemite and Yellowstone and the role they played in starting America’s national park system. Prominently featured was John Muir, whose Martinez home is also under the jurisdiction of Martha Lee, Superintendent of Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park who is based in Richmond. Among other things, I learned that it was forward looking President Abraham Lincoln who signed into law the bill that protected Yosemite Valley in 1864, in the midst of the Civil War.

The national parks are like old friends to me. As a youth, I floated and fished the Buffalo River in the Arkansas Ozarks, which later became the Buffalo National River. As a summer job in college, I spent four years working for the National Park Service, two summers in Yellowstone (one of which included a weekly trip to Custer Battlefield) doing construction administration, one in Hawaii working for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and one in San Francisco at the Western office of Design and Construction (now the Denver Service Center).

Shirley and I have hiked and backpacked a good part of Yellowstone, Yosemite and Glacier National Parks, sometimes going out for days and knocking down 30 or 40 miles in Grizzly country. We have rafted the Colorado in Grand Canyon National Park. Altogether, we have probably visited more than half the 391 national park units.

Now, as a city council member and as president of Rosie the Riveter Trust, I am playing a role in building one of America’s newest national parks, which I hope you will be celebrating with us this very weekend at the Home Front Festival.

Ken Burns' 'The National Parks' documentary brings renewed attention to John Muir

By Chuck Barney
Contra Costa Times

Posted: 09/27/2009 12:00:00 AM PDT

Updated: 09/27/2009 04:32:18 AM PDT


Half Dome, in Yosemite National Park, Friday May 22, 2009. (Photo by Maria J.... ( Maria Avila )


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Ken Burns tends to get effusive. Ask the acclaimed filmmaker about his new opus on America's national parks and watch what happens: His eyes widen, his hands dart about and lyrical words gush forth like a mountain stream after a robust winter runoff.

"I just feel it," he says, trying to explain the emotional attachment he has to his work. "I've got the preacher's desire to have everybody stand up and testify."

The same might be said for John Muir, the iconic naturalist Burns got to know so well during the making of "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." Muir, who lived in Martinez from 1880 until his death in 1914, extolled the virtues of nature through his writings and activism. Had it not been for his

crusading, Yosemite and other natural treasures might now be gated communities — or tacky theme parks.

In Muir, Burns essentially found a kindred spirit.

"You could see Ken gravitating toward Muir the whole time we were making the film. He was captivated," says Dayton Duncan, a producer and lead writer on the project. "What Ken sees in Muir is what he sees in Louis Armstrong and Jackie Robinson — individuals with great enthusiasm for life and the ability to channel that enthusiasm in a way that has a profound impact on other people."

Clocking in at 12 hours, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," features plenty of lush, jaw-dropping scenery from what Muir called "nature's sublime wonderlands." But the film

isn't a simple travelogue crammed with pretty pictures. It's a rigorous examination of the evolution of the national park system from 1851 to 1980.

It's also the biographical saga of unsung heroes and famous figures from various backgrounds who committed themselves to preserving the nation's wilderness sanctuaries for all to enjoy. As presented in the film, the national parks concept is nothing less than a rousing expression of American democracy.

Fittingly, Muir gets star treatment. The highs and lows of his remarkable life are chronicled, including the time he and President Theodore Roosevelt camped together in Yosemite, and his most bitter disappointment — the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley to provide water to San Francisco.

Muir's presence is even felt during the film's opening montage as actor Lee Stetson voices a piece of his writing:

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike."

It's that brand of poetic prose that struck a chord with Burns, an East Coast native who never had been to Yosemite before production began and, admittedly, only had superficial knowledge of Muir.

"It's such a great thing to be hit over the head when you're working on a film," Burns says. "I just wasn't prepared for what a great writer he was. Mark Twain said the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. John Muir was lightning."

The film also brings to life the physically adventurous side of the Scottish-born rambler — the man who first arrived in the Yosemite Valley in 1868 and fell into what Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, calls a "berserk rapture."

Young Muir would think nothing of hiking 50 miles in two days, or of scaling steep slopes in shoes studded with nails, sleeping on glaciers and climbing a tall tree in a torrential storm just to feel what the tree felt.

"Because we've seen all these photos of an old and bearded Muir, we tend to think of him as having a pontiff-like presence, dispensing pearls of wisdom from his throne," says Stetson, who regularly portrays Muir in theatrical presentations at Yosemite and elsewhere. "But in his younger days, he was very hands-on in the way he embraced the wilderness. He did things that would have cost most of us a life or limb."

Though Muir continues to be an inspiration to nature-lovers everywhere and remains relevant in a world striving to go green, he is remote and indistinct for many. Even in the East Bay, where his name is emblazoned on highways and hospitals, schools and hotels, he remains something of a mystery.

"It's amazing how many people live here, or nearby, who don't realize that Muir raised a family here, worked here and is buried here," says Thaddeus Shay, lead ranger at the 9-acre John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez. "It's kind of sad."

Shay is hopeful that Burns' film will fuel interest in Muir and inspire more people to explore the 17-room Victorian mansion he shared with his wife, Louie Strentzel, and their two daughters. This is where Muir managed a highly profitable fruit ranch and wrote his books in what he called the "Scribble Den."

The site, Shay says, annually attracts 35,000, some of whom are startled by what they find.

"They're kind of surprised that he didn't live in a little one-room cabin up on a hill," he says.

It was in an editing room in Walpole, N.H., where Burns formed his bond with Muir. While poring over footage, he would, at times, shed tears upon hearing Muir rave about nature's transcendental powers, and would laugh at how Muir attempted to commune with the land in offbeat ways.

"This is a guy who took a wild ride on a snow avalanche," Burns says. "A guy who would drink the purple liquid of the Sequoia pine cone to become more tree-wise and 'Sequoiacal.' To even make up a word like that — you've got to love him."

The bond was sealed when the filmmaker, weary from a promotional appearance in San Francisco the previous night, drove into the Yosemite Valley to catch up with his camera crew. For the first time, he saw the majestic sights that Muir fought so tirelessly to protect.

"I've never in my life felt the way I felt at that moment," Burns says. "It was like losing your virginity, or becoming a parent for the first time. You think you know what it's like to make love, or be a parent, and then you come to realize you really had no idea."

Read Chuck Barney's TV blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/tv.

and follow his Twitter updates at twitter.com/chuckbarney.

Series Premiere

·  WHAT: "The National Parks: America's Best Idea"

·  WHEN: 8 tonight

·  WHERE: Channels 6 and 9 (PBS)

A few facts about America's national parks:

·  The first site to receive a national park designation was Yellowstone in 1872.

·  There are 58 national parks, but the National Park Service also manages numeorus historic sites, momuments and battlefields.

·  Overall, the NPS oversees 84 million acres.

·  Yosemite National Park started as a state-run park.

·  The Largest unit in the system is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska. It encompasses 13,200,000 acres.

·  Collectively, the NPS sites host 275 million visitors a year.

·  The most visited park is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which annually attracts more than 9 million tourists.