The National Parks and The Wilderness Legacy

“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”—Wallace Stegner

The new documentary series by Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, premieres this Sunday, September 27 on PBS. The 6-episode series chronicles America’s national parks through the stories of people who made them possible, and who continue to do so today. They include artists, multimillionaires, Presidents, writers, environmentalists, park rangers, and more, who all felt the power and beauty of places like Crater Lake, the Everglades and Yosemite Valley and understood the urgent need to preserve them for future generations. Their work made national parks our inheritance, and our responsibility, to enjoy, respect, and protect. For more information about the series, more previews, and to check listings, visit the PBS series website.

Wallace Stegner, whose words inspired the PBS series subtitle, was one of those who helped make national parks a reality. As author Philip Fradkin shows in Wallace Stegner and the American West, Stegner was drawn into the conservation movement because of his lifelong connection with the wilderness, and his deep conviction that these places must be preserved for everyone. With his writing, Stegner did not just help preserve forests and canyons, but put into words the vast and haunting power of the outdoors. He understood that beyond ancient trees and pristine rivers there is something even greater—what he called the “Wilderness Idea”, something mysterious, precious, and profoundly necessary for humankind. In his Wilderness Letter, which was read around the world and was influential in the movement to pass the 1964 Wilderness Act, Stegner wrote:

“We need wilderness preserved—as much of it as is still left, and as
many kinds—because it was the challenge against which our character as
a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still
there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten
years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of
the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest,
into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply
because it is there—important, that is, simply as an idea.”