“America’s Best Idea” in New England

We don’t have TV in our house — the satellite we have is for Internet access, not cable — and normally I don’t miss it. But every once in a while a TV program comes along that I wish I could see along with everyone else. “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” the six-part series on PBS by cinematic historian Ken Burns, falls into that category. The series started on Sunday night, but we weren’t in the viewing audience.

Instead, thanks to the folks at Burns’ film company, Florentine Films, we watched a segment that airs on Tuesday night. This segment, “The Empire of Grandeur,” follows the history of the national parks after John Muir’s advocacy helped create the country’s first national park, in Yellowstone, and protected his beloved Yosemite.

That history, over the years 1915 to 1919, includes the struggle to create what became the first national park east of the Mississippi and remains New England’s only national park, Acadia, on Maine’s Mt. Desert Island. People who care about the wild places of the Northeast will find much to think about in the story.

As the episode dramatizes, Acadia became a national park in large part because a small number of people thought beyond their individual pain or pleasure to a larger, common good. The first of them, Harvard president Charles W. Eliot, used his personal influence and connections to start a preservation movement on Mt. Desert, honoring the ideas and impulses held by his prematurely deceased son, a landscape architect in the Boston firm of Frederick Law Olmstead. George Dorr took that movement and made it his life’s work, spending down his personal inheritance so that the island’s rocky shores and forested mountains could be added to a national inheritance shared by all. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who had decided to concentrate his energies on “the social purposes to which a great fortune could be dedicated,” became enlisted in the cause; his land purchases and donations tripled the acreage of what would eventually become Acadia National Park.

I happen to agree with the thematic notion in the series’ subtitle: The national parks are possibly “America’s best idea” — or at least among our country’s very best ideas. Watching the segment on Acadia reminded me, though, that it has never been easy to conserve land of important scenic or historic value. George Dorr learned that he couldn’t even give the land on Mt. Desert Island to the federal government on behalf of preservationists.

But Acadia, in some ways, is the exception that proves a rule: It almost always takes more than that small group of committed people, and more than money or influence, to preserve our natural heritage. Again and again, from Yosemite to Glacier to the Grand Canyon, Ken Burns’ documentary shows that protection of public lands requires broad public support.

Over the weekend, as I was learning about the history of our national park system, I learned that funding for several important conservation projects in the Northeast has moved out of the U.S. Senate and on to the House. Cardigan Highlands, Mahoosuc Gateway, and the Silvio O. Conte wildlife refuge are among the projects; all are AMC priorities for federal land funding in the next budget cycle. Many people and organizations around the country are working to make these and thousands of other “best ideas” a reality.

See the links below to find out more or join in.

Learn more
• Learn more about Acadia National Park

• Learn more about “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea

• The Cardigan Highlands are included in the Quabbin to Cardigan Initiative (Q2C), which is attempting to conserve one of the largest remaining areas of intact, interconnected, ecologically significant forest in central New England.

Images of Acadia National Park and George Dorr from the NPS.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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