I just finished watching Ken Burns’ recent documentary on America’s National Parks. The scenery was great, but Burns’ interpretation of the meaning of the National Parks was a bit confused. The entire series seemed to be a celebration of democracy – that the creation of the National Parks was an essentially American idea, to create places for all to visit – rich or poor, upper or lower class, native or immigrant, etc. With the amazing foresight and passion of a few dedicated individuals, and the power of the well functioning American government, massive open spaces containing natural beauty were preserved – because, as John Muir said, anything dollarable is at risk.
Burns fails to point out two significant oversights or inconsistencies with this narrative. One is practical, another is his interpretation of the meaning of democracy.
For example, if I want to take our family of 4 to visit Yellowstone Park this summer, I would have to endure 4 plane tickets at a cost of $400 each, rent a car (for a week say) for $200, pay for gas, pay for lodging away from home (that is on top of continuing to pay our mortgage) – the cost for even a modest stay at Yellowstone for us is over $3,000. Unless the government is going to get into the business of subsidizing family vacations, there is not any practical way that “anyone can enjoy the parks.” Even if I drove, my cost would be above $1,000, and this does not include the time cost. It is not like the National Parks are located in many people’s backyards.
Furthermore, the next time one of you attends a national park, take a look around you at the demographics and tell me with a straight face that it is even remotely close to a snapshot of what America looks like. I was in the Sierras at the end of May, and all I saw were, well, maybe I’ll leave that for another post.
Once again, Burns shows us that government is raw power, and that the idea of democracy is not only cloudy, but invoked in the name of things that some individuals think is desirable. Saying something is democratic does not make it so, and invoking the term democracy does not make the objects of political decisions somehow sacred. I am happy we have National Parks. Whether they are best managed by the US Government is a very open question, and whether their creation was some sort of democratic success is not exactly historically accurate. It would have been nice for Burns to recognize this. But when you worship at the altar of Big Government, all introspection is thrown out the window. In a future post, we’ll show you some of the “success” stories from the Federal Government’s “management” of our national treasures.