Documentary notes Alaska parks

Posted: Thursday, July 09, 2009

By MARGARET BAUMAN

Morris News Service-Alaska, Alaska Journal of Commerce

Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns, with his new documentary on America's national parks, has touched the hearts of Alaska's conservationists and the tourism industry, both with their own personal passions for seeing these parks thrive for generations to come.

Burns was in Anchorage June 18 to preview excerpts of "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," before parks aficionados packed into the Performing Arts Center for an evening with the celebrated filmmaker. The six-part series is scheduled to begin airing on public broadcasting stations in late September.

"The exposure we are going to get will be tremendous for Alaska," said John Binkley, president of the Alaska Cruise Association, the major sponsor of the event. "I think it will certainly make a difference, get Alaska's name out there."

The 12-hour, six part series is not so much a travelogue but a story of the people, from every conceivable background, whose efforts resulted in the national park system America has today.

As Burns tells it, the rich and poor, famous and unknown, idealists, artists and entrepreneurs devoted themselves to saving portions of America for reasons ranging from high ideals to crass opportunism, in breathtaking scenic backdrops, including Denali National Park and several other wilderness areas of Alaska that lie within the national park system.

For more than 30 years, Burns has chronicled for public television stations segments of America's history, including baseball, the adventures of Lewis and Clark and the Civil War, as well as biographies of such notables as Thomas Jefferson, Huey Long, Frank Lloyd Wright and Thomas Hart Benton.

Jim Stratton, Alaska regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, agreed with Binkley that Burns' latest series will bode well for the visitor industry in Alaska.

"I think once the Ken Burns special is played on the air waves, depending on what part of the country you are in, the reservation lines (for vacation travel) are going to light up," said Stratton. "I think it's going to be really good for the parks."

It will also be really good for the tourism industry in Alaska, Stratton said. There will be a huge ripple effect, benefiting the cruise industry, lodges, private campgrounds, recreational vehicle rentals and miscellaneous private ventures, from river rafting to horseback riding and flightseeing, he said.

Stratton also sees the national parks series as a motivator to get more Alaskans into the parks, to attract more people to become park rangers, park interpreters and volunteers in the parks, and to talk to their congressmen about getting more money for the parks.

"It's a nice circle," he said. "The funds are experiencing a shortfall. They are down $600 million nationally of what they should be funded. The resulting interest by the American people will be helpful in closing that gap by 2016. It's an achievable goal.

"Congress has a program for the centennial (of the national parks) of matching grants," he added. "Congress just put $25 million into the fund for the centennial so parks can nominate projects to the fund with a partner. That's a great way for local organizations to get dialed into helping their local park out."

Burns said in an interview prior to the event that everyone has a stake in becoming involved in America's national parks, "as active and dedicated self-sacrificing stewards."

He sees the parks not just as resorts and places to glimpse primeval America, but as laboratories "in which quite often the sins of the whole planet can be more accurately or more precisely or more quickly revealed. I think we can see particularly in the Lower 48, in Glacier, which may soon be the park formerly known as Glacier National Park, the effects of system-wide global problems of climate change."

Burns also gives much credit to private businesses interests, particularly the railroads, for their supporting role in creation of the parks.

"Traditionally and historically we have arrayed certain business interests as the ones who are the threats to the park, threats to the creation of the parks, and in some cases, that has been true, but it has also been businesses like the railroads that have been instrumental in their creation," he said. "Without the railroads, we wouldn't have a lot of the great parks. They are good for business, good for people, good for community groups. To the extent that people, community groups and businesses become active in preserving the parks, it's great for everybody. Without these stewards, they will languish and perhaps succumb to the pressures of development."

Burns noted that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the railroads were the real partners of the nation's conservation movement and that it was entirely in their self-interest.

"They were just building the new trans-continental railroad," said Burns. "Railroads were extending into every corner of the United States and one way you got people to ride for more money was to have a destination in mind.

"So many of the upper-middle class and elite members of the Eastern seaboard would take these train trips out to Glacier (National Park), out to Yellowstone, out to Yosemite and the Grand Canyon by riding on the Pacific, the Northern Pacific, the Central Pacific railroads. In some ways, the railroads adopted the parks," he said. "They became the private fiefdoms; a lot of the in-holdings and concessions were owned by the railroads. It was in lock step that you would buy a ticket out there and then buy another ticket that would get you the stage into the park and a ticket for the hotel and the sightseeing tour."

Burns sees this work not just as a travelogue or nature series, but also as a history of the people of America. While certain members of America's upper class are known for their contributions to the park system, "it is a much more diverse story of black and brown, red and yellow and male and female and unknown, so-called ordinary people falling in love with it and insisting on it being saved," he said. "The arc of our story is an incredibly diverse and complicated, and in the end, a very inspirational one."

Margaret Bauman can be reached at margie.bauman@alaskajournal.com.



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