I’m very sorry to see that Ken Burns’ new film series is to be entitled The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. As I detail extensively in my book The Really Inconvenient Truths, the nationalization of so much wonderful scenery has led to appalling mismanagement and environmental degradation. When the Parks Service and Forest Service spent hours in 1988 debating whether or not a fire counted as “natural” because it started from a lighning bolt striking a telegraph pole, large areas of Yellowstone National Park burned to ashes. Another park service biologist, Don Despain, saw the flames raging towards his research area and urged them on with the words, “Burn, baby, burn.” These are the tales I can’t imagine you’ll see in Burns undoubtedly beautiful film, but they’re as much a part of the National Park story as the scenery.
For decades we have known about the deplorable fact that the National Park Service was far more interested in following a path of ever more land acquisition, and that caring for the lands they had was at best an afterthought. The administration of President Ronald Reagan and Interior Secretary James Watt attempted, mainly unsuccessfully, to stop additional land acquisition until the government could demonstrate that it could be a good steward of the lands it already owned.
Despite their beauty, the National Parks have not been an unalloyed good. For the very reason that they explicitly reject private stewardship, they may even count as one of America’s worst ideas.