Once, back when conservation was taught in schools, every youngster heard the teacher say, “To see what man has wrought, go to Europe. But to see what God has wrought, come to America.” While the Old World has its palaces and cathedrals, Americans have Yosemite, Yellowstone and the nearly 60 other national parks that comprise our “empire of grandeur.” A sumptuous new book, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, recounts the history and preservation of these treasured places.

The book is a visual adventure, like its companion, the recently aired PBS production of the same name. Ken Burns and crew shot 150 hours of film and collected 12,000 archival photographs, distilling their work here. Of course they include such iconic places as the sun-splashed Grand Tetons of Wyoming and the valley of the Colorado River. Less well known but equally breathtaking are Oregon’s Crater Lake in winter and the Dakota badlands. Some of the historic pictures—chiaroscuro studies—feel nearly three-dimensional. Others touch the heart, including one of John Muir as an old man, broken by the loss of his beloved Hetch Hetchy Valley, flooded for a reservoir.

Filmmaker Burns’ works are abundant with characters. This story of “America’s best idea” is likewise a story of people: those who first saw these spirit-lifting landscapes, reported on them to the world and fought for their protection—or tried to destroy them for profit. Theodore Roosevelt inevitably bestrides these pages. Muir, a close friend, called him “the most vital man on the continent,” and with good reason: during his presidency (1901-09), more than 280,000 square miles—a total area larger than Texas—were placed under protection of some kind.

Less famous heroes also gave their working lives to the conservation cause, writing articles, making speeches and lobbying politicians to save places with canyons, glaciers and giant trees. After an early life of dissolution, Horace Kephart took refuge in the mountain fastness of eastern Tennessee in 1904, where he witnessed logging companies laying waste to vast tracts of ancient timber. Owing his life to the wilderness, he joined the movement to save what was left. He was rewarded in 1934, when another President Roosevelt signed the law creating the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

When the authors refer to “the scripture of nature,” it becomes clear that their journey to make this stunning book was very much like a pilgrimage—and we are the richer for it. 

Jim Summerville writes from Dickson, Tennessee.

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