The National Parks: America’s Best Idea

ONE of the best Christmas presents I received this year is a film by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan entitled ‘The National Parks: America’s Best Idea’ – as twelve episodes contained in a case of five DVDs.

So far I’ve watched episodes one to four which begin with John Muir’s campaign to protect Yosemite in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California from commercial development and ends with his failure to stop the flooding of Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley.

As the case cover explains: “Nearly a decade in the making, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea…  is a breathtaking journey through the nation’s most spectacular landscapes and a celebration of the people – famous and unknown – who fought to save them for future generations to treasure.”

The first four episodes provide tremendous insight into not only the environmental campaigns lead by John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club, but also the important role of President Theodore Roosevelt in establishing and protecting national parks and also national monuments in the US.  

The film is a reminder of how much was at risk before there was environmental legislation and protection.  The story of the slaughter of bison in Yellowstone National Park to the verge of extinct is particularly harrowing.  

John Muir would nowadays be called an environmentalist, or conservationists, but one hundred years ago he was recognized as a preservationist.   In losing the fight to protect Hetch Hetchy Valley it may have appeared that the preservationists had lost to the conservationists.  

In fact John Muir may have lost the battle, but won the war: Most of today’s environmental and conservation groups campaign for preservation, rather than conservation.    And of course the management of national parks today in Australia, is mostly in accordance with the preservationist’s philosophy.

The film is narrated from the perspective of the preservationists with a deep respect for natural history and natural landscapes.  

Following is an explanation of the difference between preservation and conservation. 
from Wikipedia… 

“In July 1896, [John] Muir became associated with Gifford Pinchot, a national leader in the conservation movement. Pinchot was the first head of the United States Forest Service and a leading spokesman for the sustainable use of natural resources for the benefit of the people. His views eventually clashed with Muir and highlighted two diverging views of the use of the country’s natural resources.

Pinchot saw conservation as a means of managing the nation’s natural resources for long-term sustainable commercial use. As a professional forester, his view was that “forestry is tree farming,” without destroying the long-term viability of the forests.

Muir valued nature for its spiritual and transcendental qualities. In one essay about the National Parks, he referred to them as “places for rest, inspiration, and prayers.” He often encouraged city dwellers to experience nature for its spiritual nourishment. Both men opposed reckless exploitation of natural resources, including clear-cutting of forests. Even Muir acknowledged the need for timber and the forests to provide it, but Pinchot’s view of wilderness management was far more utilitarian.

Their friendship ended late in the summer of 1897 when Pinchot released a statement to a Seattle newspaper supporting sheep grazing in forest reserves. Muir confronted Pinchot and demanded an explanation. When Pinchot reiterated his position, Muir told him: “I don’t want any thing more to do with you.” This philosophical divide soon expanded and split the conservation movement into two camps: the preservationists, led by Muir, and Pinchot’s camp, who co-opted the term “conservation.” The two men debated their positions in popular magazines, such as Outlook, Harper’s Weekly, Atlantic Monthly, World’s Work, and Century.

Their contrasting views were highlighted again when the United States was deciding whether to dam Hetch Hetchy Valley. Pinchot favored the damming of the valley as “the highest possible use which could be made of it.” In contrast, Muir proclaimed, “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the hearts of man.”


10 Responses to The National Parks: America’s Best Idea

  1. val majkus December 30, 2010 at 11:07 am #

    I’m certainly in favour of conservation
    But I think management of national parks/state forests in Aust shows need for improvement.
    There needs to be weed management for example – I’ve heard so many farmers in the Nowendoc region and other regions of the New England complain about the non management of blackberries in state forests which results in a spill onto farmed land
    Also some improvement in management of brumby numbers – (in the Aust alps, Guy Fawkes River NP; outback Qld Carnarvon NP they’ve been a problem in recent years) I don’t know what the answer is to management improvement but there’s a public outcry when they are culled from the air and I think aerial culling is now banned in NSW;
    So far as I know kangaroos can’t be harvested in national parks and this results in over population
    Wombats and dingoes and koalas I’ve heard also multiply to plague proportions
    then there’s the issue of controlled burning which I think should be carried out more vigorously particularly near habitated areas

    Undergrowth burning

  2. spangled drongo December 30, 2010 at 12:26 pm #

    Because of the wider biodiversity of American NPs I suspect they operate naturally, better than ours.

    National Parks ARE a great idea!

    But if Australia’s national parks are an example of wildlife preservation then it is not working.

    Wild and domestic packs of feral dogs, cats and foxes decimate the native ground dwellers which just cannot cope with these more highly evolved feral predators.
    Our most sophisticated native predator was the Thylacine which was easily accounted for by the Dingo over a period of about three thousand years and it’s been all down-hill ever since. Because the Dingo [which is simply an Asian fisherman’s dog] has been embraced as a “native dog” by the preservationists nothing can be done about these out-of-control predators in NPs and our ground dwellers don’t have a chance.

    10-80 baiting can easily solve the problem as it is target specific and is much less likely to affect natives than ferals but Nat Parks won’t allow it within many of the crucial areas because to kill the dogs, cats and foxes you also kill the Dingo.

    Fraser Is is a case in point. Thirty years ago this incredible potential refuge for much of our endangered wildlife was resumed at taxpayer expense for this purpose, at which time it had considerable biodiversity and what has it become? A feral Dingo nursery!
    The same thing could also happen to North Stradbroke Is when it is resumed for a NP.

    A similar situation occurs in many of Australia’s NPs and I often think if we had the problem of rabies in Australia at least we would be doing something to help the natives by getting rid of these ferals. One of the few things that assist the natives against the ferals is the scrub tick which can kill the ferals so if you ever get one on you, extract it gently and put it back where it came from.
    If you’re a genuine indigeny you will be immune to them [and 10-80].

    Conservationists OTOH have a much better record of native wildlife preservation and I feel that a case could be made for cutting some of our NPs into 20 ha private holdings [with limited farming and grazing] and they would end up with more biodiversity.

  3. Jennifer Marohasy December 30, 2010 at 12:33 pm #

    spangled, thanks, but John Muir was not interested in biodiversity. are you? really?

    val, thanks, with spangled, as conservationists, you highlight the value of active management…

    The fourth episode of the film quoted Theodore Roosevelt when he first visit the grand canyon … he said something along the lines:

    leave it as it is. the ages have been at work at it. man can only mar it.

    this has now become something of a slogan for the modern conservation movement…

  4. spangled drongo December 30, 2010 at 1:45 pm #


    I’m interested in biodiversity but no where near smart enough to know what’s really happening with all of it but one point I try to make is that NPs aren’t more biodiverse with mankind excluded.

    We may be the most feral of all animals but in our increasingly feral world we can be the best thing there is if we are smart.

    BTW, this morning I found 11 of those sybaritic native orchids [no photosynthesis required], the type of flower Larry Fields mentioned in a post here a while back.

    And when I see my small colonies of various wallabies, koalas, skinks, native rats, birds etc being chewed up by ferals it does affect my day.

  5. spangled drongo December 30, 2010 at 1:55 pm #

    Sybaritic aaarrgh!

    That should be saprophytic.

  6. Debbie December 30, 2010 at 4:39 pm #

    Another great article Jennifer,
    I had the opportunity to stay at Yosemite in 2008 and also walk around Hetch Hetchy. I remember being in absolute awe of the whole area for two reasons.
    1) Yosemite is an amazing natural wonder. Absolutely stunning. That was one huge glacier that carved its way through there! (I suspect that humankind had absolutely no effect on the glacier’s formation or demise 🙂 ) It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. They are also making a screaming fortune from tourism. The Americans, largely because of Muir and Pinchot, have one of the world’s best track records in conservation and preservation. Because they were in drought, there was a massive bushfire there during the last two days of our stay. It did become life threatening and there was much criticism of the lack of “management” in this huge and beautiful national park.
    2) Hetch Hetchy dam is a technical marvel. It is responsible for opening up some amazing land production as well as producing hydro power and being a huge tourist attraction. It is nearly as beautiful as Yosemite. I actually saw more wildlife there than I did at Yosemite. It stores a massive amount of water and the surrounding landscape is pristine. It did not get affected or damaged by the raging bushfires in the next valley. No lives were threatened and no wildlife was lost.

    We also drove back towards the Napper valley in California and saw the irrigation and farming practices that have developed from the building of Hetch Hetchy and other water conservation works.
    At the time, California was in drought and suffering from bushfires but because of their vision they still had plenty of water to continue their irrigation programs. I remember feeling rather sad because we had been placed on a negative water allocation at the start of 2008 in our area of the MIA in Australia. Unfortunately our track record in this area is rather poor compared to America.

    What an interesting and thought provoking article about the different schools of thought between “conservation” and “preservation”. Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy are a perfect example of the two.
    It is interesting how the 2 have been “blurred” and hijacked in modern times.
    It is also interesting that they both provide benefits to man and the environment in different ways.

    There is some information available on Yellowstone Park which explains that both preservationist and conservationist thinking can go terribly wrong when people presume they know more about “preserving and conserving” than the traditional owners of the land or the original white settlers of the land. Both “preservationists” and “conservationists” managed to make some serious errors with the natural flora and fauna because they did not listen to people with local and generational knowledge.
    In Australia, we are suffering from this same error. Many of our National Parks have been radically altered by fire and weeds and feral animals because our “preservationisits” and “conservationists” did not listen to the right people.
    It is far too late for us to just let nature take over. All that takes over are the weeds, the undergrowth and the feral animals that Europeans have introduced. Trying to “give it back to nature” is just plain silly! We have already interfered. Now it is up to us to manage it all correctly and keep it safe and productive for future prosperity. It is just plain dumb to kick ourselves around for interfering. We can be way smarter than that. When it comes to their National Parks, most of the time the Americans are.

  7. Schiller Thurkettle December 31, 2010 at 12:15 am #

    Misanthropy lies at the heart of many of these “natural real estate” projects. ‘Man can only mar it’, etc. No peaceful coexistence — coexistence is a ‘sell-out’ if you’re with the gang-greens.

  8. kuhnkat January 2, 2011 at 1:53 pm #

    ” When it comes to their National Parks, most of the time the Americans are.”

    Except we aren’t. In our forests we put out the small fires until we have so much fuel we have catastrophic fires that destroy much more than man does. In Yellowstone the various groups who reintroduced the Bison made sure no one could touch them. They are now overgrowing their range and moving into human inhabited areas causing problems. Oh yeah, they are finally trying to reintroduce the wolf so there may be a little limitation of their growth, but, the wolves won’t be able to make a significant difference and will cause more problems killing other animals. Sorry, our enviros, especially in conjunction with government bureaucracies, aren’t really very smart.

    Yosemite was know by the natives as the valley of the smokes. There were apparently continuous smoldering fires burning in the area. That was “natural”. Basically we are interfering with the “natural” environment even now. Whether that is better would appear to be no at the moment.

    I believe we COULD be much smarter. Unfortunately we need hard headed realists instead of religious environmentalists setting the agenda.

  9. spangled drongo January 2, 2011 at 2:20 pm #

    So right, Kuhnkat!

    To think we can reintroduce human-free pristine nature back into our feral planet is living in dreamland.
    It has to be overseen and managed with as much understanding as we have.

  10. James Mayeau January 5, 2011 at 9:49 am #

    Hey wait now. Let Debbie talk.

    I like reading your opinion of America, especially how Hetchy bucked up well versus the fire season compared to Yosemite.

    But the way things turned out, with Hetch Hetchy supplying the liberals of San Francisco with drinking water, actually making the city possible, so that collection of self righteous nannys can dominate the state and national politics, to tell me how to live, I think I prefer Muir.

    There’s a movement lately to have the dam removed from Hetch Hetchy, which I am against.

    But I’m being too hasty. If Hetchy is gone SF, Napa, and Marin don’t have any more water to drink.

    Maybe I should climb on board that bandwagon.
    After all it’s what the Democrats have been doing to us for the last three years, cutting off water for farms to preserve a bait fish.

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