The National Parks: America’s Best Idea?

The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, a six-episode series by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan is a wonderful example of our imperial culture at its finest. This 6 part PBS series was worth it for its beautiful images and the mainstream history it presented. There can be no doubt that Burns and Duncan set out on a mission to educate Americans about the role the “National Parks” have played in this country.

In one of the many poignant moments in the 6th part of the series, viewers will learn about how Seward Alaska would come to reverse its bitter opposition to the creation of the Kenai Fjords National Park during Jimmy Carter’s administration. Throughout the 12 hour documentary, there is  story after story about the century long battle to protect America’s most beautiful wilderness areas. Sadly, the thematic presentation of the documentary underlies the heart of this country’s dysfunctional relationship to the natural world.

On the surface, it would appear that Burns and Duncan have created a master piece. A subtle broad shot across America’s distracted conscious of how most of it’s citizen’s see the natural world. Yet, as more and more of us come to realize the current state of affairs in this country, it becomes hardly more than just another reinforcement of the current political paradigm. The corporate media and its massive news infrastructure in all of its wisdom will, as usual, ignore/censor the documentary while the anti-environmental establishment will be relieved of any serious duties to defend itself from many of the shows themes that beg to be explored more fully.

Probably one of the most dominant yet delicately balanced themes is developed right from the beginning when President Lincoln signed away Yosemite to the state of California which then turned the park into what has become hardly more than a Disney theme park in terms of the economic exploitation that has evolved as the primary rationale for most of the country’s national parks today. Yes, for any serious environmentalist, Eco-tourism represents one of the darkest aspects of how most people use the parks. Kind of like a modern version of the outhouse. The park system is mostly run as a business operation, any attempt to hide the underlying business first agenda of managing the parks is countered by suggesting there is some kind of miraculous alternative buried far away in Denali.  The powers that be have seen to it that if they can’t exploit  the  park system directly, most  parks would be operated like circuses, hawking its most prominent features so that ever growing numbers of tourists can get a drive by photo op.

One of my own poignant moments in this regard came many years ago when making a stop at a state park a short distance from the Zion nuclear power plant on the shores of Lake Michigan. Oh yes, there was a pleasant beach and the lake in front of you, but dare not look to the right. But the real eye opener was in the large parking lot where hundred’s of RV’s were lined up. Most of the guests at the park weren’t out at the beach but sitting in their RV’s watching TV’s, all of them hooked up to the curbside services being offered. It reminded me of Joanie Mitchell’s legendary song “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”… But more to the point it exemplifies the heart of a soulless bankrupt culture that just doesn’t get it when it comes to how isolated Americans are from the real world. The American Dream and the car culture at the steering wheel has become a global  “Plague of Locusts” as its viral economic zealotry has replaced any semblance of ethics or spirituality with an ever expanding consumption based death grip on the natural world.

In moment after moment many of this country’s strongest environmental proponents, people like John Muir, Harold Ickes or Stewart Udahl are used to bring out the harsh economic forces that have long attacked the endeavor of saving what little wilderness is left today. But there is something deeply disturbing in how these battles never seemed to get connected to what is happening today and the homogenized eco-washing that is being passed for any kind of sane relationship to what is left of the world.

The documentary made a modest attempt to delve into the real and ongoing nature of what we have done to the first nations, or tribal people of the western hemisphere.  In what is clearly the most difficult part of this Euro-centric documentary, there was a very dangerous point in time where the role of African American Buffalo Soldiers would be highlighted in their role of protecting the parks yet low-lighting their role in killing tribal people.

1880 Painting: The First Train

1880 Painting: The First Train

Imagine what John Muir might think if he spent an afternoon today on the back ridge of Mt. Tamalpais state park just north of San Francisco, not far from the handful of protected redwoods at Muir Woods, watching a car commercial being made on one of the more scenic spots in the park. How would he relate to his own elitist tactics he used to try and stop the city of San Francisco from damming the Hetch Hethcy Valley? Would he finally see the implications of keeping wilderness areas only for the very wealthy as Europeans and Americans first set out to do? Or would he have come to the realization that our corporate driven culture and the human endeavor has turned into a planetary plague?

What would this environmental zealot that championed the protection of the wild think of the RV/car tourists and their growing urge to get away from the corporate ruled ghettos we are caught up in today? Just a blink ago only the ruling elite of the world were allowed to squander/plunder the world’s resources for pleasure and pecuniary profit. Now, if you don’t own a car (the poison power driving it is equivalent to having your own private cadre of 700 slaves) you are considered disturbed. And of course, our addiction to oil is linked directly to the planet’s ever-growing population as the core “American Dream” of driving to work in a Chevy or SUV every day. This daily ritual is the single most psychotic act in the history of this planet. But then, imagine, the masses would never have been able to partake in the advent of National Parks if not for the single most powerful economic engine the world has ever seen.

Albert Bierstadts Yosemite at Sunset. Featured on the Autry Museum website.

Burn’s agenda of using the National Parks as canvass to paint a picture of this country’s relationship to nature will draw a lot of heat and deservedly so. As an example, Burns would further confuse the Anglo name for Yosemite Park with the romanticized trend of white vs. tribal people. Probably one of the most complex if not devastating aspects of what has happened to tribal people in the entire western hemisphere is how Europeans exploited tribe against tribe and over time, even divisions within tribal communities. And so it continues on today. If you wish to learn more about the tribal implications in this particular matter, go here.

Imagine how a tribal visionary like Chief Seattle might have gone about the creation of such a documentary! Or say the “environmental radicals” that were not even mentioned in the final segment? How would the so called idealists that see beyond the mere casual use of parks for some kind of “get-away” repaint the Burns/Duncan mural? I was sadly amused that the program dare not mention the 30 year plus Rainbow Gatherings that take place annually on federal lands. Why of course, the Baby Boomers all kind of stayed put with Ozzie and Harriet’s version of the park’s use didn’t it, or so it would seem with Burns and Duncan. Okay, yeah, I know. The Muir’s and Thoreau’s of today just aren’t gonna make it into this squeaky clean and safe version.

Let me focus on what direction might be taken when we look at how it might be possible to counter the business as usual spin of  a “Sustainable world”. For anyone with a modest involvement in the recent history of the global environmental battleground we know all to well about how issue after issue has been framed and reframed by  corporate interests and the media that reports the news to Americans. How many people in this country today have the slightest memory of what happened in Rio in 1992 when over half of the world’s Nobel scientists warned the world that we had 20 years left to deal with the growing problems of over population and environmental devastation?

It shouldn’t be too startling to realize that there is some kind of connection to the idea that about 80% of Americans rely on TV news as well as a similar percentage that has no college education. However, what is  a more vital concern is the capacity of the Internet to free people in this country and around the world from the age old indoctrination mechanisms of elite control of information to the masses.

The gatekeepers of disinformation are desperately concocting their next moves as they role out sophisticated databases that give them the ability to personalize each and every one of our subjective experiences. Shades of the Matrix unloaded anyone? Thus, it becomes ever more urgent that the issue of how the corporate agenda has long used the tool of framing content to indoctrinate and subjugate the minds of the ignorant and powerless among us. Its not rocket science to see the growing distrust endeavored by the corporate media towards anything that endangers their growing control over the world.

Their ancient theme of criminalizing poverty, non-capitalist values or more to the point, their complete censorship of alternative ways of understanding the world other than their dualistic modeling are at the core of problem.

In essence, there are no issues left that will ever stand a chance of real change until the corporate brainwashing of the masses is made the dominant issue that must be interlaced with all other issues. And it is this utmost concern that comes to mind when rowing back to the PBS documentary.

What can be scavenged from this highly framed missive on what it means to be a human in this age, and why the authors ignored the most charged element of where most environmental visionaries are afraid to dwell upon in fear that they might end up being labeled heretics or worse? Its easy to go out into the wilderness for forty days and never come back. Human history and the scientific model beckons that there is no going back or any ethical idea that might include launching some kind of exploratory mission of humans that move back from the present in an organized fashion. Imagine, a NASA like agency with a budget to explore advanced forms of simplified living that doesn’t impinge on the natural world. This (envisioned) news report just in:

  • The National Simplified Living Administration (NSLA) announced from its headquarters in Arcata California at their “Non-Nuclear Family Community Modeling Center” that they’ve been able to reduce the annual living costs per person down to about $15 a week, with estimates that within four years that it could reach as low as $15 a year. At the heart of the news was their new modular passive solar heated housing units that are now being produced for less than $5,000 per person. The biggest goal of the project is the dramatic reduction of the use of any plastics or oil based technologies at the individual level. The community’s use of computer technology represents one of its most important evolutions as most residents have slowly learned how to deprogram the highly addictive aspects of standard online behavior that has become endemic in western society, without the loss of intellectual stimulation that computers offer.

Okay, now imagine how this kind of news would hit most people in this society? Imagine it might scare certain economic/real estate sectors for some reason? It was long ago that I read somewhere that prior to the arrival of Europeans in Hawaii, that the local people only needed to work about two hours a day to sustain their daily living needs. What the hell were they doing with the rest of their time, and how would our current dysfunctional job needs seemingly fit into our consumer driven indoctrination?

Imagine if it was against human cultural values to live further than two miles from any known water body on the planet. How could we enforce such a draconian idea? Easy, when the oil runs out so will our ability to live further than that from sources of water. I’m really not opposed to some kind of scientifically based human community that uses all of what we have learned and know today. Its just that when the indoctrinated capitalist predator gets involved they will always have the current system at their disposal to destroy any alternatives. Shouldn’t it be up to wiser minds to find a way to extract ourselves from their world and dictatorial mechanisms they have used to block any real alternative to their viral poison?

Thus, it should not be a surprise to anyone who knows better that the “shallow unanalytical reporting” that passes as news content as well as what transpires in the Burns/Duncan ditty will grace the tables of the country’s elite as one of their best indoctrination pieces ever. Sip slowly at the heavenly pitcher of truth dripping the concentrated honey as if we had just arrived at a magical oasis after years of wandering in desert of ignorance we have all been living in when it comes to awakening to the real history of our national parks!

It was truly a letdown to see just how much these people had to chop out this show to keep their funding in place.  The environmental battles that have taken place, just as the country has grown ever rightward in its materialist greed doesn’t seem to a be a topic here as the underlying shift away from supporting further park expansion in the last segment. Imagine the complete lack of commentary on how a Texas thief stole the last remaining private Redwoods in Northern California and was rapidly cutting them down to cash big time. Imagine the complete lack of federal support in saving those trees from the axe. Or imagine the even more hypocritical sweeping summary that in the latter years wilderness protection had shifted to cultural protection as federal policy.  As a San Franciscan, I will never forget the role Nancy Pelosi played in creating a corporate controlled National Recreation Area in the Presidio of the city.  Yes, there were a few positive acts like the coastal sanctuary off Monterrey but let’s face it. The corporate media and the rightwing took over PBS long ago and gutted its capacity to present anything that dares challenge its corporate sponsors.

Yeah, watch the show if you have the time or interest in seeing some nice images and mostly unkown history of our parks. Its also worth checking out the PBS website on the documentary, especially the People section. But note the complete absence of any information relating to the environmental groups in this country, not to mention us radical visionaries that are carrying on in the footsteps of Thoreau or Muir. What a wonderful frame to miss!

From the PBS online site:

Filmed over the course of more than six years at some of nature’s most spectacular locales – from Acadia to Yosemite, Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon, the Everglades of Florida to the Gates of the Arctic in Alaska – The National Parks: America’s Best Idea is nonetheless a story of people: people from every conceivable background – rich and poor; famous and unknown; soldiers and scientists; natives and newcomers; idealists, artists and entrepreneurs; people who were willing to devote themselves to saving some precious portion of the land they loved, and in doing so reminded their fellow citizens of the full meaning of democracy.

Episode One: “The Scripture of Nature” (1851–1890)

The astonishing beauty of Yosemite Valley and the geyser wonderland of Yellowstone give birth to the radical idea of creating national parks for the enjoyment of everyone; John Muir becomes their eloquent defender.

Episode Two: “The Last Refuge” (1890–1915)

A young president, Theodore Roosevelt, becomes one of the national parks’ greatest champions; in Yellowstone, a magnificent species is rescued from extinction; and in Yosemite, John Muir fights the battle of his life to save a beautiful valley.

Episode Three: “The Empire of Grandeur” (1915–1919)

In John Muir’s absence, a new leader steps forward on behalf of America’s remaining pristine places; a new federal agency is created to protect the parks; and in Arizona, a fight breaks out over the fate of the grandest canyon on earth.

Episode Four: “Going Home” (1920–1933)

As America embraces the automobile, a Nebraska housewife searches for peace and inspiration in park after park, while a honeymoon couple seeks fame and adventure in the Grand Canyon; and the future of the Great Smoky Mountains becomes caught in a race with the lumbermen’s saws.

Episode Five: “Great Nature” (1933–1945)

In the midst of an economic catastrophe and then a world war, the national parks provide a source of much-needed jobs and then much-needed peace; the park idea changes to include new places and new ways of thinking; and in Wyoming, battle lines are drawn along the front of the Teton Range.

Episode Six: “The Morning of Creation” (1946–1980)

A stubborn iconoclast fights a lonely battle on behalf of a species nearly everyone hates; America’s “Last Frontier” becomes a testing ground for the future of the park idea; and in unprecedented numbers, American families create unforgettable memories, passing on a love of the parks to the next generation.

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