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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.

  1. Even if National Parks are owned by government, and operated by taxpayer funds, and admission is free, that it no way means that they can be enjoyed by all, nor does it mean that a majority of Americans even care about them. In what sense is this “democracy at its very best” as Burns claims?

    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.

  2. Some of the early National Parks were indeed created by laws passed from Congress (presumably a democratic thing). However, when Congress passed the Antiquities Act in the early 20th century (as a means of providing the government the tools to protect historic sites like Mesa Verde), it inserted a provision which gave the President powers Obama and Bush would really dig. At the stroke of a pen, the Antiquities Act allowed the President to set aside any tract of land that was of historical value and unusual scientific interest. Now, of course, you can see how such a provision can be interpreted. The Act was intended to be narrowly targeted to archeological sites and the like, but very quickly Teddy Roosevelt used it to achieve other ends. Usurping both the federal Congress and Arizona state legislature’s wishes, Roosevelt declared the Grand Canyon a National Monument with the stroke of a pen. And a bit later, Burns celebrates how the raw power of the President was able to save the Petrified Forest with the stroke of a pen. Now I do not deny that these are valuable places to preserve. But how can Mr. Burns cite these as examples of democracy in action when in fact these were decisions against the wishes of the American people at the time? And when these actions were taken basically by a single individual? Hardly the idea of Democracy at work.

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.

3 Responses to “National Parks – A Celebration of Democracy?”

  1. Michael says:

    I enjoyed some of the series, but couldn’t make it through all of it. In general, my wife doesn’t like it when I start on econ lectures, and that show provides enough material for a semester!

  2. Harry says:

    I watched the same piece, and share your observation about the parks being a manifestation of democracy.

    We got most all of that land with the Louisiana Purchase and the rest by conquering the descendants of Cortez. (I do not have any qualms about subsequent owners having clear title.)

    I’ve been fortunate to having spent much time in Yellowstone and the Tetons, thanks to a connection when I was an undergraduate that got me a job as a camp counselor at Teton Valley Ranch, perhaps the Eden of all camps for kids.

    The camp was anything but democratic, since prospective campers themselves were interviewed, to be assured that they were good kids of the sort that you or I would think were clean-living kids we’d want our kids hanging out with. Except for the transportation cost, which included coach travel on the train to Rock Springs, the camp was no more expensive than some place in the Adirondacks, where the biggest event may have been paddling a canoe, as opposed to going on a pack trip, the very best pack trip, to the headwaters of the Yellowstone River.

    The experience was one that only maybe a few thousand, if that, will ever see. I cannot imagine how much it would cost to put one of those trips together, but it would be far more than four figures for a family of four.

    The ranch was sold several years ago, but it has been reincarnated not far from Sheridan, and they still do backpacks in the Tetons, and pack trips to the Teton wilderness and Yellowstone, far from the nearest car.

    Sorry, wintercow, you are too old. They only take seventh- graders on up to I believe fifteen years old.

    That is, unless you get a job as a camp counselor.

    One final note: I rode Jack Palance’s horse, bareback.

  3. […] Here is my last thought on the National Parks. […]

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