Philanthropy and National Parks - sunday 2010-07-11 0049 last modified 2010-08-01 2354
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I took some spare hours in July to watch Ken Burns' long form documentary series on the US National Park System. One of the constant narratives oft-repeated at the outset and echoing throughout subsequent decades was the role the extremely, obscenely wealthy - say the top ten in the world - played in the initiation and realization of, as Burns calls it, America's best idea.

It is a heady, patronizing concept of re-forming the world for the Average Man that those super wealthy carried with them and discussed at their rarefied tables. Perhaps hundreds of millions of Americans owe them our gratitude for their patrician acts, Rockefeller being nearly solely responsible for The Great Smoky Mountains and Grand Teton by virtue of his vast land purchases and later donations to the federal government. Yet my impression is that America's Best Idea was less a well-intentioned, planned social program to make light the proletarian burden and more of a fortunate accident made good by those who, for whatever reason, were well-acquainted with the fact that human interference is often at odds with natural preservation. That is, Yosemite Valley can keep itself running without us, but as soon as we decide it's a tourist attraction, no matter who's running the show, it will become a travesty and farce, much as it did. Park rangers encouraged visitors to hand feed bears up to the 1950's. Nightly displays of a raft of dynamite pushed over Yosemite Falls were an enormous attraction.

The benevolence of wealth played its part in changing the balances of priority and power in government, but to my mind we would have nothing natural in our park system, nothing worth visiting, without naturalists and preservationists George Melendez Wright and Adolph Murie. To be sure, the preserved grandeur of our parks as we know them now for each generation is our best idea as a landed people, and the most shocking corollary Burns slips in through his personal voice, Ranger Shelton Johnston, is the racial makeup of park visitors to Johnson's Yosemite: less than 1% black. There's a pile of research there to be had at the minimal expense of periodically bringing inner city Angelenos to Sequoia or Yosemite.

When I journeyed away from the city two years ago, it was into great beauty, from one shore to the other. The day watching the setting sun behind the Tetons from the east fails to take my breath away should be the day I quit everything else until it does once again.

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