The filmmaker, who directed the award-winning 2009 PBS documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea, talks about the political and spiritual underpinnings of the park system.

ken burns glacier national park
The documentarian sees climate change as an existential threat to places like Glacier National Park.
| Credit: Getty Images

What prompted you to make your series about the national parks?

This was a joint decision between me and my longtime partner Dayton Duncan and—he and I had made a number of films about the West. Dayton was like, “Why don’t we do a history?” It wouldn’t be a travelogue, it wouldn’t be a recommendation of which lodge to stay at—but rather a history of how these extraordinary places came to be.

For the first time in human history, land was set aside. Not for the noblemen or the rich, but for everybody. That had never happened before, and only in the special circumstances of a relatively brand-new American democracy could this take place.

It’s a very democratic concept.

There is an American tendency, the manifest destiny within us, to completely spread over the continent without much reflection. When we look at a forest of trees, we think wood; when we look at a river, we think of a dam; and when we look at a canyon, we wonder what mineral rights lie within. What is so very special about the parks is that somewhere along the line we asked, Yes, but can we save these beautiful places—some of the most beautiful places on the face of the earth—for everybody for all time? If we hadn’t, then Yosemite and Zion would have turned into gated communities for the wealthy, the rim of the Grand Canyon would be littered with mansions, and the Everglades would have long since been drained and added to the urban sprawl of the Miami area with endless housing developments, shopping centers, and golf courses. The Everglades is one of the most ecologically diverse places on earth—the only place where alligators and crocodiles coexist. And, my goodness, if we hadn’t preserved Yellowstone, it would probably be some down-on-its-luck place called Geyser World. Sometimes it's a wonderful life. Sometimes you need to be shown what you might have missed if this had not happened. I think that the national parks represent this extraordinary inheritance that every single one of us has—rich or poor, young or old, black or white, from any region in the country.

Why is America so fascinated by the West?

We’ve always been a people that have looked to the horizon, to the future. We are a dreaming and a visionary people—we are wildly antsy, unsatisfied, restless, and peripatetic—we get up and go places. The west represents this. And while the national parks initially helped collect those very special places in the West, it has, like America itself, been constantly refined as an idea.

When Thomas Jefferson said “all men are created equal,” he only meant all white men free of debt. Now we mean all people—black and white; young and old; male and female; able-bodied and handicapped; gay and straight. The national parks went from saving places of natural beauty to saving places of historical importance and even places that reveal shameful aspects of our past. There are the plantations and slave cabins that made the luxurious life of the plantation owner possible. There is Sand Creek of Washita out in the Great Plains that commemorate the slaughter of innocent Native American women and children. There’s Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the heroic passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 brought down a plane intended for the Capitol or the White House on 9/11. We invented the idea of setting aside places. There are more than 400 units in the country documenting a complex but also natural, political, social, and military history.

The parks have a spiritual element for Americans, too.

Oh, it is most definitely a spiritual thing. We are many things all at the same time. We’re generous and we’re greedy. We’re puritan and we’re prurient. In the case of the national parks, we are acquisitive but also generous. It shouldn’t come as too great a surprise that many people who championed the creation of specific national parks were also themselves very wealthy individuals who could have easily gobbled them up.

We tend to see the promise of America in purely political and social terms. What we forget is that the United States was born under the idea of religious tolerance and religious freedom. There is an American idea that Ralph Waldo Emerson invented, and that other people like his disciple Henry David Thoreau and then later John Muir and Walt Whitman are continue to imbibe—a sense of American possibility, that it is possible to worship God not just in the cathedrals made by man in the European tradition but in nature, where you are in cathedrals built by God. Look how much salvation John Muir found in Yosemite. He is at once a scientist and a saint and a holy man of these places.

American history is so compelling, in part because you can see the evolution of our democracy and the emergence of an idea such as the national parks. It’s very organic, our democracy.

It’s built into our DNA. We are in pursuit of happiness. Jefferson could have said, “Life, liberty, and property,” as John Locke said, but he didn’t. And the emphasis is not on happiness but on the pursuit—it’s the idea that we are a nation forever becoming. The national parks were born out of many different impulses. Some are about creating that jaw-dropping experience you have at the rim of the Grand Canyon. With Yosemite, it’s this sense that it should be shared. Americans love to burn everything behind them like rocket fuel, but the parks represent the exact opposite of that impulse. We have very few things that represent the idea to save—it’s the embodiment of conservatism.

You’ve said before that Niagara Falls is a cautionary tale. What do you mean by that?

Private speculators bought up Niagara Falls on either side of the United States and Canada. There was a sense that we were taking the most magnificent falls in North America and cheapening it. It was embarrassing. Europeans called us on it. But we still had some of the highest free-falling waterfalls in the United States. We had the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone not yet despoiled. The Grand Canyon. We had all the windswept museums of the patient erosion of Utah, from Arches to Canyonlands to Bryce and Zion, to remind us of God’s architecture, if you will. We could set it aside, but that didn’t stop the sheepherders or the lumber interests—so what did we do? We sent in the army, and who were they? African Americans—the Buffalo Soldiers. After a while, we needed a separate entity to protect these parks, and so we created the park rangers who explain the science, the history, the biology, the ecology of all of these places to us. I just love that. You can have a billion dollars or you can have nothing but we are equal before the Grand Canyon. That’s the democratic ideal played out. It may not be true in our justice system, as we’ve been experiencing in torturous ways in the last few years, or indeed in our entire history, but in the national parks it is.

What do we have to worry about?

Climate change is the single greatest thing with which to be concerned, and in the Lower 48 we may soon have to be referring to the national park formerly known as Glacier, because those glaciers are not there. My own visits have recorded their recession. We have also had, for a long time, unfunded mandates. We need to spend a lot of money to bring our parks up to snuff. We did it with Mission 66, which was a multi-year lead-up to the 50-year anniversary for the parks in 1966. The visitors’ centers and the parking lots and the cafeterias and the campsites were all spruced up, and we need that now again. We need to do a better job of taking care of these things. It’s an amazing inheritance but an inheritance nonetheless! It requires us to take care of it for the next generation.

What about the statistics that show that a majority of visitors are affluent and white? How do we encourage other Americans to visit?

One of the great missions of the parks from the beginning was to convince everyone that it is for everyone. There was a time when it was still largely a white clientele who came to the parks—much of it has to do with disposable income and the ability to travel, as well as an awareness and a sense of welcome. I think the national parks have done a pretty good job of renewing that sense of welcome. I remember once when we had finished the film and were on a promotional tour in Yosemite, and I stopped off at Bridal Veil Falls. In the spring it’s got an amazing spray—you can’t even get within a hundred yards of the actual place without being drenched in the mist. And there was a little Hispanic girl from California’s Central Valley with her family who had driven up for the day. She was dancing at the edge the way my own daughters would, and I just thought, Here it is—she owns this.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

For more stories celebrating the centennial of the national parks, head here. »