The National Parks: America's Best Idea
A film by Ken Burns. Filmed over the course of more than six years at some of nature's most spectacular locales.
“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best, rather than our worst.”
— Wallace Stegner
In honor of the 100th anniversary of “America’s best idea” I’d like to share a life-changing experience that I’ve had in a national park. But which one to choose? How about the time in Spray Park, a glorious wildflower-bedecked high meadow on the shoulder of Mount Rainier, when a heat wave on the east side of the mountain collided with a rainstorm on the west side, convening a symphony of thunder, lightning and hail over my head?
When I was a kid, my Dad, brother and I hiked beyond the “danger” signs at Yosemite Falls ― it was misty and amazing until my Dad slipped and cut his head, leaving a scar as a permanent reminder of our hair-brained adventure. The moral of such stories ― nature is big, way bigger than we are, but life is more exciting when we venture into the wild.
I have gentler national park memories too, ones that I carry with me like a talisman against the concrete and traffic and din of my urban life. These include the cathedral-green gloaming of the Olympic National Park rain forest, the murmuring music of a winding meadow stream, the barely audible (to me, anyway) twinkle of stars against a truly dark sky.
Ancient trees and dark skies were already becoming rare in 1916, when, on Aug. 25, President Woodrow Wilson signed the “Organic Act” which created the National Park Service “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein … by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
The first national parks, including Mount Rainier National Park, actually predated creation of the National Park Service. In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law, making Yellowstone the world’s first national park. Rainier became the first national park in Washington State and the fifth in the nation in part because famed preservationist John Muir fought for its elevation to this supreme protection status, which would prevent logging.
“The Mount Rainier Forest Preserve should be made a national park and guarded while yet its bloom is on,” Muir said. “For if in the making of the West Nature had what we call parks in mind ― places for rest, inspiration and prayers ― this Rainier region must surely be one of them.”
And so it came to pass that in 1899, Congress and President William McKinley created Mount Rainier National Park, so that 100 years later I could stand in a pristine meadow next to an active volcano and watch weather systems collide.
And speaking of friction, it’s perhaps not cool to mention this given the celebratory mood of this anniversary, but so many people rush to Rainier looking for wide open spaces that on a summer day what they often encounter are traffic jams. Even air pollution.
Luckily, in Washington State we have one of the least-visited parks, which is mysterious given its startling beauty. About three hours’ drive from Seattle, North Cascades National Park is often compared to the Alps by virtue of its jagged peaks and more than 300 glaciers. North Cascades wasn’t designated as a national park until October, 1968. It has a reputation as a park that’s just for mountain men and women because it’s mostly wilderness. But you don’t need to rough it if you stay at North Cascades Institute; the non-profit’s “Base Camp” is a flexible way to acquaint yourself with the park while enjoying the comforts of a nice bed and yummy meals.
If you want to see wildlife, Olympic National Park is the place to go. I’ve listened to elk bugle and I’ve seen salmon spawn, but mostly I can’t think about the Olympics without recalling the time my boyfriend Kevin almost touched a bear. We were on a backpacking trip on the High Divide when a hungry huckleberry-eating bear on a super-steep slope above the trail slipped and slid within inches of Kevin, both of them hissing and scrambling so they wouldn’t crash into each other.
Truth be told, Olympic National Park is my favorite because it has everything I love about being outside ― wild beach, giant trees, moss, mushrooms and meadows. And, because it didn’t become a park until 1938, there’s human history too ― the remnants of a farm pioneers carved out of the rain forest or Enchanted Valley Chalet, a hunting lodge on the verge of being gobbled up by a shifting river.
Which reminds us that America’s national parks aren’t just trees and mountains. This year is the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which expanded the Park Service’s role in preserving historic sites. Our state’s newest national park is a perfect example of that kind of site ― not a forest or meadow ― but rather a nuclear reactor from World War II.
Hanford’s historic B Reactor in Eastern Washington officially joined the national park system last fall as part of the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Besides the Hanford Site it includes Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Los Alamos, New Mexico. The National Park Service estimates it will take two years to complete planning for the park, but Hanford is already increasing its sell-out tours to B Reactor, where plutonium for the first nuclear bomb was made. This year organizers added a tour of White Bluffs, a farming community that became a ghost town in 1943 when the military moved thousands of employees to the middle of nowhere to work on a secret project.
“National parks exemplify what a beautiful country we live in, but also [demonstrate] some of the most important things we’ve done,” says Rob Smith, the Northwest Regional Director of the National Parks Conservation Association. “And they remind us of places we need to save for future generations and stories we need to remember.”
What will your national parks story be? Will you slide into a black bear, glimpse a grizzly, fall asleep in a forest, or feel the weight of history while gazing into the giant face of a nuclear reactor? Why not get out there and start making memories today?
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Jenny Cunningham’s favorite kind of story is the one she hasn’t done before. Whether it’s reporting for TV or writing for magazines, travel or tribulation, Cunningham likes discovering something new. At KCTS, Cunningham has covered everything from the history of Hanford’s race to build the atomic bomb to biodynamic wine to opera supernumeraries. Cunningham has been honored with television journalism's most prestigious awards including Emmy Awards and the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best News Series in America.
As a writer for magazines and newspapers Cunningham’s features have appeared in publications including the Irish Times, Sunset Magazine, Seattle Magazine, the Vancouver Sun, The Oregonian and Wine & Spirits Magazine.
Cunningham has a master’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from Northwestern University and she graduated cum laude from USC with a BA in Journalism and a BA in TheaterMore stories by Jenny Cunningham