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Celebrating America’s National Parks


As we celebrate National Parks Founders' Day, we'll talk about the history of America's national parks

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to a special broadcast of These Days live from the Cabrillo National Monument on Point Loma. It is a beautiful day on Point Loma. It's gotten a little bit breezy, that's brought the temperature down. It's beautiful, blue skies everywhere you turn. People are milling around at the exhibition booths, and we are here in the Visitors Center, right in front of the Visitors Center, watching all the people go by. This is Founders Day at Cabrillo National Monument and throughout the National Park Service and there are hosts of exhibitioners and actually a celebration of all San Diego County's parks and open spaces. Now, national monuments like Cabrillo here in Point Loma, or the Statue of Liberty National Monument in New York, or the Gettysburg National Historic Site, or the incredibly beautiful national parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone didn't just happen. There were advocates and agitators, poets and politicians and thousands of everyday folks like ourselves who got on the bandwagon to save some of the natural wonders and history of America for the enjoyment and education of all Americans. The story behind the creation of America's National Parks is rich with characters and events. It has heroes, even a few villains. And it's all the more intriguing for the fact that many of the people who worked to make these sublime wonderlands possible are often not remembered today. Ken Burns has made a new series of documentaries called "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." The documentary is being previewed here today at the Cabrillo National Monument and it will be aired on KPBS-TV next month. And here to tell us about the program is my guest, Julie Dunfey. She is co-producer of the series. And, Julie, welcome to These Days.

JULIE DUNFEY (Documentary Co-producer): Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Julie, let me ask you first about the name of this documentary. Are the national parks really America's best idea?

DUNFEY: Well, it's funny you should ask that. That was our working title for a while and then it disappeared for a while. You know, and it's been attributed to different people, the phrase, 'America's best idea.' As you see – When you see the first episode, you'll see that we ask that question immediately, and I think the answer is, well, probably the Declaration of Independence is America's best idea but right up there, right behind that, is the national parks. That's become one of our biggest and best exports to the rest of the world.

CAVANAUGH: Now just so we all know what we're talking about, let's get some basics down. How many national parks are there?

DUNFEY: There are 58 national parks…

CAVANAUGH: And are there…

DUNFEY: …and I believe three hundred and, ooh, I think it's 394 national park units, and that includes historic sites, national monuments, some of the type of things you mentioned in your introduction.

CAVANAUGH: Is there at least one national park in every state?

DUNFEY: Yeah, there is in every state except Delaware. That's also the only state that doesn't have its own PBS station.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, well, we've got to get on Delaware then. Is there one person who can be credited with coming up with the idea to save areas of the country as national parks?

DUNFEY: You know, I don't think there is one person. It was an idea that was talked about, discussed as early as the 1840s and 1850s but there really wasn't a lot of momentum for it until you got to the creation of, first, Yosemite, which was actually given to the State of California, and then, of course, Yellowstone became the world's first national park in 1872. But there were certainly people like John Muir, artists, photographers, railroad companies who had a vested interest in getting people to parks. There were certainly a lot of people who thought it would be a good idea.

CAVANAUGH: And how was the idea received officially?

DUNFEY: You know, I think what we found as we put – as we researched and put together this film is that it's usually a matter of the American people asking or demanding that their government do the right thing. You know, we say in one of our interviews when we're talking about the creation of the world's first national park in 1872, one of the writers says, you know, you wish they had gone out and rung bells or recognized that they were doing something great but, really, they took it about as seriously as what color to paint the cloakroom in the Senate. It's only in retrospect that we see what a great thing they were starting back in the 19th century.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Julie Dunfey. She's co-producer of the new Ken Burns documentary, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." And, you know, I want to remind our listeners that they are invited to join the conversation. We are broadcasting from the Cabrillo National Monument on Point Loma. And if you have a memory of visiting Cabrillo National Monument or another national park or a question about our nation's national parks and monuments, you can give us a call. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. Right now on the line with us is Marcy. She's calling from Hillcrest. And good morning, Marcy. Welcome to These Days.

MARCY (Caller, Hillcrest): Hello.


MARCY: I just wanted to call in and share a memory. When I was about ten, about 30 years ago, my mother was a ranger and she…


MARCY: …was a – she would take people up to the lighthouse who were not able to walk. And as a kid, the place was just the best place ever. You had everything from the tide pools to the nature walks to going into the lighthouse and seeing everything in there. And often people come to San Diego to visit and, you know, people take them to Balboa Park, the zoo, Sea World, and people forget about Cabrillo National Monument, which is so beautiful, and when I take people there, they don't even realize it. So I just wanted to share that memory with you and to say that, you know, it's a beautiful park and I wish more people would visit and be aware of it. So, thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Marcy, thank you so much. Thank you for your call. I really appreciate it because it is certainly a gorgeous day down here today. And it's the kind of place where there is a view of the ocean everywhere you turn because it's right on the tip of Point Loma. And if you don't know about it, today would be an excellent day to find out because it's Founders Day here at the Cabrillo National Monument and in all the nation's national parks. I'm speaking with Julie Dunfey. "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," the new documentary by Ken Burns is going to be previewing here today, all day long, as one of the festivities at Cabrillo National Monument. And, Julie, as we go along and as you document in this series, you know, you can't go far in the story of America's national parks without mentioning President Teddy Roosevelt. What did he do for the idea of the national park system?

DUNFEY: You know, Teddy Roosevelt's one of the heroes of our film and I think it's fair to say that Teddy Roosevelt defines the conservation agenda for, certainly, the first half of the 20th century, maybe even longer. He's a fascinating figure because he was a big game hunter. In fact, as a young man, he hurried out west because he wanted to make sure that he killed a bison before they all disappeared. And so he's sometimes difficult for people who don't hunt to understand but what he and others like him understood was that if you kill everything off, there's nothing left to hunt. And so he understood that both the beautiful animals, the big game animals, the birds, needed protection and they needed their habitat to survive. He had a very deep and abiding interest in preserving both the animals and the habitat, in which they survived, for this country.

CAVANAUGH: And I thought it interesting that Teddy Roosevelt actually went to Yellowstone and Yosemite and he went off for himself for a while, he got – he went off into the park without Secret Service, without anybody else, just wandering around. I mean, it's really amazing to think about.

DUNFEY: He did. He insisted on going off by himself. He would often – A couple of times in Yellowstone, he just went off with some hardtack in his pocket and maybe a little bit to drink and he would go and look for herds, often hiking 18, 20 miles in a day. And he did not have a Secret Service at that time and he's a fascinating figure that way. He had a genuine love of the outdoors and the vigorous life.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, did people start using the national parks right away?

DUNFEY: No. I think it's fair to say. Certainly in Yosemite which, I think, the first year that maybe six visitors showed up when it…


DUNFEY: …was under the care of California. And part of the issue was actually getting to a park so, really, until railroad service was complete across the United States, it was very difficult and only the most hardy could get there by horse or wagon. And even once you arrived in the national park, you had to be pretty hardy and go through by horse or wagon as well on a guided tour. But railroads had a big interest in promoting the parks and that's certainly how most easterners arrived in the western parks in the early days. But I would say Americans really developed a relationship with their parks with the advent of the automobile in the early decades of the last century when they were able to go, as it were, on their own dime and on their own time, as well.

CAVANAUGH: And there was a big push to get roads in the national parks so people would start enjoying them, right?

DUNFEY: There was. Stephen Mather, who was the first Director of the National Park Service, I think had a businessman's understanding that if he needed to market these places to the American public and he needed to convince congress that enough visitors were using them that it was – they were worth funding, they were worth saving. And so some people think he made a devil's bargain by promoting the automobile and promoting roads to the parks but he increased visitorship by a huge – you know, by millions every year through the twenties and thirties, to these places, and he also came up with the plan of having one road with – people could have a windshield experience, as it were, going through each park, that they could see some of the most fabulous sights as they went through each park. So in the twenties and thirties, that was one of his big accomplishments, was establishing a road through each park where people could see some of the most astonishing sights.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Julie Dunfey. She is co-producer of the brand new Ken Burns documentary series, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." The series is being previewed here at the Cabrillo National Monument on Point Loma where we're broadcasting These Days today, and it'll also be airing on KPBS Television next month. And I want to tell you, Julie, just in case you hear something because there is a – I said it was breezy before, there is an actual wind kicking up. It sort of brought down our sign, not exactly on my head but it's certainly taking the heat away. And it's a beautiful, beautiful day to be broadcasting from the Cabrillo National Monument here on Point Loma. You know, the idea of what happened to national parks and the way they should be used, as you were explaining with the advent of the roads and everything, has changed over the years. In the beginning, it was interesting to learn, that park rangers used to feed the animals.

DUNFEY: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: And bears would like perform. They would come up to the cars for scraps. How did that change?

DUNFEY: Yes, I think starting in the 1930s and right through the 1960s, I think a different sensibility developed, that not only were we saving these beautiful waterfalls and these beautiful mountain peaks but we had a duty to preserve animals in their wild state in these places as well. And a wonderful young biologist named George Melendez Wright started promoting this idea in the 1930s. Unfortunately, he was killed in a car accident. He was a rising star in the wildlife division in the parks but he died quite young. And his – the mantle wasn't really picked up again until the 1950s with Adolph Murie, another wildlife biologist, who said that, look, we're not just preserving the beauty of these places, we're preserving whole ecosystems and that included animals in their wild state, and that they deserved to not be treated as pets or circus animals or roadside attraction but that the real beauty came in getting off the beaten path and seeing them in their wild state, not in having them…


DUNFEY: …come up and try and climb into your cars. We have many wonderful home movies and pictures of the bears doing just that.

CAVANAUGH: I know it's rather frightening to look at today is the scary pictures. One of the things, Julie, I wanted to point out in this documentary series by Ken Burns is, you know, we all know, I think, how skillfully Ken Burns uses archival footage and old photographs in order to tell a story. But you didn't only have to rely on that; you have such beautiful photography of these national parks and monuments it's really breathtaking. Did you commission these photographs and these images yourself or did you find them?

DUNFEY: The live cinematography is all – we shot ourselves. So any of the beautiful live cinematography you see in the 12 hours is – was done by Ken, by Buddy Squires, by Lincoln Else and Allen Moore, our cameramen. If you see still photos, color still photos, those are – which we are using in the companion book to the series, those were created or – by a man named Tuan Luong who is also featured in our show. He has – he's Parisian. He's born to Vietnamese parents in Paris, and he has photographed in all 58 of the national parks, and his still photographs very much match our sensibility in the live cinematography. He lives in California now and so, yes, those are all our images, and if they're still images they belong to Tuan.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Julie Dunfey. She's co-producer of the series "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," and we are inviting your phone calls at 1-888-895-5727. Right now, Terry is on the line from Hillcrest. Good morning, Terry, and welcome to These Days.

TERRY (Caller, Hillcrest): …a really fascinating program. I was wondering if you could tell us the difference between a national park and a national monument.

CAVANAUGH: I'm sure Julie can do that. Julie, can you field this one?

DUNFEY: You know, I can't hear the question. I can only…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, all right, let me tell you. Terry is asking what is the difference between a national park and a national monument.

DUNFEY: It's the degree of protection that's provided. It takes an act of congress to create a national park and it essentially provides for it to be preserved as much as possible in its pristine state. A national monument can actually just be created by executive order by a president. It doesn't require an act of congress, and it doesn't have quite the degree of protection that a national park does. Other activities are often allowed whether it be some sort of logging or mining or that sort of management so it's…


DUNFEY: …the difference is both in the degree of protection provided and how it has to be created.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Julie, the documentary series ends with the year 1980 and I'm wondering why didn't you take the series up to the present day?

DUNFEY: That's a great question. We consider ourselves historians, not journalists, and so we want to have that degree of distance on the subject. But I think what we found over and over again is they may be played out in a different generation but the issues actually don't change that much. The national park idea has evolved over 150 years but it's often the same battles, the same issues that are fought and discussed over and over again. Why do we have these places at all? To what degree do we need to protect them? You know, what's our duty to the next generation? And so in a way I think if you're informed or interested about national park issues in the last 30 years, you can watch the documentary and you can say, oh, this is the same issue or this is the same thing people were arguing about two or three generations ago. So – But the basic answer to your question is we consider ourselves historians rather than journalists.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I think we're out of time here, Julie, but thank you so much for taking the time and speaking with us today.

DUNFEY: Thank you for having me. Good luck.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Julie Dunfey. She is co-producer of the Ken Burns documentary, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." The documentary premieres September 27th at 8:00 p.m. on KPBS Television. Now, before we go to the break, as we are broadcasting from Cabrillo National Monument, we'll hear from some more visitors to the monument today. And here's our producer, Hank Crook.

HANK CROOK (KPBS Producer): Thank you, Maureen. I'm here with a couple of young people and their mother today, and why don't I introduce them to you. Hi, what is your name?

JOANNE (Monument Visitor): Joanne.

CROOK: And what is your name?

KAYLEY (Monument Visitor): Kayley.

CROOK: And what is your name?

TYLER (Monument Visitor): Tyler.

CROOK: Well, thank you for coming out today. So why are you guys here today, Joanne?

JOANNE: We're here on a field trip so that we can go and experience the lighthouse while it's open.

CROOK: And, Kayley, are you excited to check out the lighthouse?

KAYLEY: Yes, I'm very excited.

CROOK: And what do you think about this place here?

KAYLEY: I think it's really interesting with a lot of cool facts.

CROOK: Like what kind? Any facts that you remember? That stick out to you?

KAYLEY: Not really, no.

CROOK: No? Well, I imagine you're going to learn a lot when you guys go and visit the lighthouse. Do you – Have you guys been to any other national parks before?

JOANNE: We have. Several up in northern California but then throughout the rest of the United States as well such as Glacier.

CROOK: And do you guys plan to go to any more or just kind of explore this place today?

JOANNE: Well, today we're just going to explore everything we can do here. But, of course, we always try and make it to national parks.

CROOK: Well, thank you very much. You guys have a good day.

JOANNE: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And thank you, Hank. And when we return, we'll have a conversation with author Richard Louv about what the national parks can do for us and our children. You're listening to a special broadcast of These Days from the Cabrillo National Monument on KPBS.

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