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National Parks: America’s Best Idea: The Scripture Of Nature (1851-1890)

Airs Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: As revealed in "THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA," a six-part, 12-hour film by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan, John Muir (pictured), part scientist, part mystic, became the park idea’s most fervent proponent in the last half of the 19th century.

Parks Overview

Did you know there are almost 400 parks in the national park system? Use the Park Explorer to find them all, or click on the images to learn more about some of America's most storied and spectacular places.

This 12-hour, six-part documentary series, directed by Ken Burns and co-produced with his longtime colleague, Dayton Duncan, who also wrote the script, is the story of an idea as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence and just as radical: that the most special places in the nation should be preserved, not for royalty or the rich, but for everyone. As such, it follows in the tradition of Burns’s exploration of other American inventions, such as baseball and jazz.

Episode I "The Scripture Of Nature (1851-1890):" In 1851, word spreads across the country of a beautiful area of California’s Yosemite Valley, attracting visitors who wish to exploit the land’s scenery for commercial gain and those who wish to keep it pristine. Among the latter is a Scottish-born wanderer named John Muir, for whom protecting the land becomes a spiritual calling. In 1864, Congress passes an act that protects Yosemite from commercial development for “public use, resort and recreation” — the first time in world history that any government has put forth this idea — and hands control of the land to California. Meanwhile, a “wonderland” in the northwest corner of the Wyoming territory attracts visitors to its bizarre landscape of geysers, mud pots and sulfur pits. In 1872, Congress passes an act to protect this land as well. Since it is located in a territory, rather than a state, it becomes America’s first national park: Yellowstone.

Browse the selection of video clips from the documentary, scenes that had to be cut, and untold stories of "The National Parks."

Find out more about Episode II, "The Last Refuge (1890-1915)"

Find out more about Episode III, "The Empire of Grandeur (1915-1919)"

Find out more about Episode IV: "Going Home (1920-1933)"

Find out more about Episode V, "Great Nature (1933-1945)"

Find out more about Episode VI, "The Morning of Creation (1946-1980)"