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From sea to shining sea: New Ken Burns series celebrates the national parks

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 22, 2009 - Missouri has two national historic sites, one national scenic riverway, one national monument, one national battlefield and that 630-foot stainless steel wicket on the riverfront with the park around it, a national expansion memorial.

But it has no national parks, the natural-resource jewel that is about to celebrated in the newest Ken Burns documentary series, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea."

Still, before Missourians begin getting an inferiority complex or start feeling shortchanged, they should realize that the National Park Service smiles equally on all of the sites under its care.

"Within the system, we don't treat a national park any differently than we do a national landmark or a national seashore or a national anything else," says Patty Rooney, public affairs specialist for the Park Service's Midwest region, based in Omaha, Neb.

"Those that do have the designation of national park are certainly held in very high esteem, but that's not to say they're any different from any other unit in the system. We hate to say any one is seen as most special. That's like asking which is your favorite child."

Bob Moore, the historian at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial -- which includes the Gateway Arch, the Old Courthouse and the Arch grounds -- also says Missourians don't have any reason to feel park envy.

"Within the National Park Service, we don't see an aching need that there should be a national park in Missouri," he said.

"We have some wonderful areas, when you consider the parks, in terms of scenic beauty and natural areas that have been set aside. We also have wonderful areas like the Truman home or the George Washington Carver site, then man-made wonders like the Arch. There's a good cross section of what makes the national park system so important to the American people."

Missouri is not alone in its parkless status, Rooney said. But instead of looking at whether something is a park, a riverway or one of a dozen designations, she said the better way to view the situation is to take into account any particular place's unique natural charms.

"Why is a national lakeshore called a national lakeshore?" she said. "It's because of its attributes, its historical significance, its cultural significance, the natural resources of a particular area."

And an official designation -- the Mark Twain National Forest, say, as opposed to making it a national park -- can also be governed by how that region may be used.

"To some degree," Rooney said, "different places have different missions -- a park or a forest. You can log in a national forest, but you can't log in a national park."

Keeping America's beautiful sites pristine -- safe from logging and other activities that could spoil the vistas that so many sightseers, campers and others have enjoyed for decades - was the driving force behind America's best idea. And as with his examinations of baseball and jazz, the national park system provides Burns with a quintessentially American showcase.

The six-part, 12-hour series (beginning Sept. 27 on KETC Channel 9) features all of the recognizable Burns techniques -- lush cinematography, leisurely panning over still photographs, plinking string music and stirring words read by famous and not-so-famous voices.

The central point made by Burns and writer Dayton Duncan is that the parks are more than beautiful landscapes. Their 84 million acres, from the top of Mount McKinley to the depths of Death Valley, embody what Theodore Roosevelt, one of their biggest champions, called "essential democracy."

On a brief stop at the Grand Canyon -- his first glimpse of the grand vista -- Roosevelt issued this plea:

"Leave it as it is. You cannot improve it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children's children and for all who come after you, as one of the great sites which every American, if he can travel at all, should see."

The series features heroes such as T.R., Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Muir, but it also showcases ordinary folks who came to love the land and worked to help preserve it and keep it as a part of the national consciousness.

The portraits of these Americans -- from rich people who donated their wealth to save the land to poor people who sent in their pennies for the same cause -- move the story far beyond a travelogue with pretty pictures.

And the land inspires eloquence in those who have fallen under its spell, such as park superintendent Gerald Baker:

"We need national parks to have people, especially our kids, understand what America is. America is not sidewalks. America is not stores. America is not video games. America is not restaurants. We need national parks so people can go there and say, 'Ahh. This is America'."

Even if Missouri doesn't have any.

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