The Last Refuge is Part 2 of Ken Burns’s 2009 documentary series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. It uses 130 minutes of the series’ 12-hour-plus running time to cover the years 1890 to 1915, a rich period that includes meaty stuff about Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, the notorious dam at Hetch Hetchy Valley, and the invention of the rather astonishing Antiquities Act of 1906, which created broad presidential powers to set aside land for protection from development (originally intended to keep some ancient Indian sites safe from looting, the Act was promptly used by Roosevelt to place large natural wonders such as Devil’s Tower under federal protection; in 1908 he blithely declared that 800,000 acres surrounding the Grand Canyon were a National Monument, which is surely one of the great fuck-you moments of the Conservation movement).
I haven’t watched the subsequent episodes yet. It’s only a coincidence that I’m writing about it a week after writing about Sarah Palin’s Alaska, another TV show ostensibly about natural wonders that carries a political argument within it. In the case of Palin’s campaign informercial, the methods are crude and the arguments sometimes incoherent, in the way that one can be for a Bridge to Nowhere but also be against it. (SPA should get credit for alerting Americans to the dangers of halibut violence against humans, however.) With Burns, who sticks to his tried-and-true style, the method is calm, measured, and frequently devastating.
Burns is a very fine filmmaker. Something about his style (or his success) has generated sarcasm and skepticism in his critics; I guess he must seem like an old fogey to somebody who’s exploring the boundaries of where reality and fiction overlap or some crap like that. And his commitment to storytelling is out of step with academic ideas of history; Burns is more an heir to the movie storytelling of John Ford, especially in his eye for contradictory characters – the conservative Iowa congressman John F. Lacey, for instance, who became the driving force behind the Antiquities Act and efforts to protect the wildlife of Yellowstone.
In this episode, Burns has people like Roosevelt, who was probably the most interesting human being in the history of American politics, so the storytelling is especially endless. He also has the National Park ranger Shelton Johnson, a poetical type who went into Whitmanesque thrall the first time he saw the Roosevelt gate at Yellowstone, and seemingly has never come out of it. Burns himself can be criticized for lapsing into that mode too often, perhaps; yet there’s something about his dogged rhythms and lucid argument that prevents the scales from tilting too far in that direction.
While watching The National Parks, one is frequently reminded of how Burns uses his subjects to go beyond the thing at hand. It didn’t take long, in watching Baseball, to see that while the massive project displayed a deep understanding of the national pastime by a true believer, it was actually a history of race relations in America. The National Parks is (so far, anyway) full of the expected paeans to the natural world, but it is also fundamentally about a central division in U.S. politics, between development and conservation – but “conservation” isn’t quite right, actually. The division is between people who would exploit absolutely everything until it is cleaned-out and dead, and those who wouldn’t. There is barely a minute of The National Parks that doesn’t remind you of something going on right now.