At some point in the last six months virtually every person who knows me even half-decently has mentioned that I'd be interested to know that Ken Burns' new documentary series is about the National Park Service. Indeed I am quite excited to see The National Parks: America's Best Idea. Having visited over 150 units of the National Park system (and with ready access to all things southern, I plan to work on that in the near future) I can guarantee that I'll watch every minute of the series. I am not alone in my enthusiasm – the critical anticipation and initial reviews border on fawning. Let's briefly overlook the fact that for every hit like The Civil War or Mark Twain Burns has pinched off at least as many turds (Baseball, Jazz, Lewis & Clark). This is no time to get cynical. I choose to think good thoughts about it.
That said, I'm worried. The normal person buried inside of me thinks, "Wow, this speaks directly to my interests!" The rest of me thinks, "Great, how many more assholes in SUVs is this going to bring?"
It's not a secret among people who enjoy the outdoors that several of the most well-known natural attractions in this country are very difficult to visit. Yellowstone is essentially unvisitable during warm weather. Visitors to Great Smoky Mountains or Shenandoah in any season except winter end up sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic for a couple hours. Yosemite is grossly overdeveloped, with Bay Area day-trippers apparently requiring a full-sized supermarket in the valley to meet their needs. Mesa Verde and the Grand Canyon are excellent places to meet every Japanese tourist or rented RV full of unhappily vacationing Midwestern families on the planet. Glacier, despite its size and remote location, is always packed. These places attract large numbers of visitors because they are spectacular, but the throngs of suburbanites who want to experience Nature through the window of their Ford Excursion are overwhelming to people who actually want to escape.
The secret, of course, is that there are secrets. Few people know of or visit Guadalupe Mountains, Pinnacles, Chiricahua, Walnut Canyon, Bent's Old Fort, Theodore Roosevelt (North Unit, thank you very much), or Craters of the Moon. Yet these are just a handful of places that are as amazing as the big names – and better, because there's no one there most of the time. We devoted fans trade tips about lesser-known places and take pains to ensure that we do it quietly. The last thing we want, of course, is for something like a popular TV series to blab all of the system's secrets. A few Ken Burns segments about Chaco Culture or Capulin Volcano will be enough to blow their cover.
I will continue looking forward to this series, but I hope it sticks to the attractions that are already badly overcrowded and most recognizable to a typical TV viewer. Like one might bake a separate birthday cake for the kids to ruin in order to protect the real one, I get the impression that the NPS has written off the Yellowstones, Yosemites, and Smokies of the system and is looking to save the rest. The big name parks are revenue makers and attention getters. They're for the casual fan, the dilettante. They are to the outdoors what Fela Kuti is to world music. While it's not my place to judge how other people prefer to enjoy a public good, I'd be more than happy to keep the RV and diesel generator crowd focused on Yellowstone and ignorant of our hidden gems.