National Park wildflowers Photo by Quang-Tuan Luong

America’s Best Idea

The story of our National Parks is the story of America

A documentary by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan explores the transformative power of nature—and how national parks connect us all.

“The best idea we ever had,” writer and historian Wallace Stegner called our National Parks system. “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” And just like America, the parks are forward-thinking, at once conservative and progressive, and, most importantly, open and belonging to all. They protect our natural beauty and preserve our culture and history.

In the end, the story of our National Parks is the story of America.

Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan explore this notion in the aptly-named film “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” supported with lead funding of $4 million to WETA from the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund. The 12-hour documentary series was broadcast on PBS in 2009, and was even previewed at the White House following President Obama’s trip to Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon. Beginning with the birth of the National Parks in the mid-1800s, the film tells the stories of some of America’s most symbolic and beautiful sites, and the people that helped create and preserve them.

Diversity is at the Core of this History

But the parks and their story have not always been shared equally. Yosemite park ranger Shelton Johnson, featured in the Ken Burn’s documentary, tells of the ongoing struggles to bring diversity to the National Parks. “Race is the core of this history, the heart of this history,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in a 2009 article. “It’s bigger than just African Americans not visiting national parks. It’s a disassociation from the natural world.”

Race is the core of this history, the heart of this history. It’s bigger than just African Americans not visiting national parks. It’s a disassociation from the natural world.

Park Ranger Shelton Johnson

And so the Haas, Jr. Fund focused its support for the documentary on bringing the film to traditionally underserved communities and catalyzing a national conversation about the diverse people who helped shape our National Parks. The Fund provided PBS with its largest-ever grant for public outreach campaign, an unprecedented effort to bring the film to diverse communities. The campaign included lesson plans for schools, translation of the series for Spanish-speaking audiences, and grants for National Park sites and local PBS stations to launch their own outreach efforts.

Giving Voice to Untold Stories

Grants from the Fund were also used to research the “Untold Stories” of people of color who have had a significant impact on the Parks. This research produced a book, several mini-documentaries profiling people of color involved in the parks, and a 45-minute film, “The National Parks: This Is America,” telling the story of the National Parks idea through a diverse cast of historical characters, up to the present state of diversity in the parks.

The Haas, Jr. Fund believes all people should have the opportunity to experience the transformative power of nature, learn about the Parks’ rich history, and become future stewards of these sites. Closer to home, the Fund has made local investments supporting National Park sites in the San Francisco Bay Area at Crissy Field and the Presidio.

“The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” was awarded the 2010 Emmy for outstanding Nonfiction Series. In addition, Co-Producer Dayton Duncan received the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming.