NEW YORK – It was the nation's best idea, Ken Burns, says: the national parks system.
Americans can appreciate the 58 parks for their majesty and for the once-revolutionary concept of setting aside the country's most precious natural resources for all citizens to use, he says. Their histories unfold in the documentarian's latest series, starting Sunday on PBS.
Many people who visit a park have a very personal connection — just like Burns.
Burns, partner Dayton Duncan and their company worked for 10 years on the 12-hour series. Toward the end, Burns spent five days working in the Yosemite national park. He looked forward to rest when it was over, but couldn't sleep: Burns' memory drifted back to 1959, when he was 6 and his father took him to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. His mother was dying of cancer at the time.
"I could remember what his hand felt like when he took me for a walk in the park," he recalls. "I could remember the songs he sang. I was given back that experience. When this amazing moment happened it was deeply spiritual."
He credits Yosemite for the experience.
Big ideas and small adventures were involved in creating the parks. That's perfect for Burns' style, which transports willing viewers into another time and place. He explores the lives of John Muir and Stephen Mather, leaders of land conservation a century ago. But in working with a Nebraska historian on another project, he learned of the lives of Margaret and Edward Gehrke, an ordinary couple that tried to see as many parks as possible, and left behind lovingly curated photo albums of their trips.
"This film is not a travelogue," Burns says. "It is not a nature film. It is a history; it is full of drama and conflict."
He said he was surprised at the diversity he found, and not just politically. Many are lost to memory as historians tend to focus on the roles of people such as President Theodore Roosevelt and business leader John D. Rockefeller.
Not only was the idea of creating national parks new to the world, it also conflicted with the striving nature of Americans who would dam rivers and chop down trees. Instead, the nation's leaders set aside the best of America's natural resources and, in effect, made every citizen owners of park land.
"Without national parks, there would be mansions of the rich lining the Grand Canyon," Burns says. "The Everglades would be drained and filled with tract housing. Yosemite, one of the most beautiful places on Earth, would be a gated community."
Burns, who screened one part of his series for President Barack Obama, has goals beyond high television ratings. He says he'd like the series to renew appreciation for the parks and increase attendance, just like his Civil War series drove interest in tourism related to that conflict. He'd also like more public money to flow into park restoration and maintenance.
When Burns came to PBS with the idea, senior programming executive John Wilson acknowledged some skepticism about a biography of places, instead of people. But Wilson said he trusted Burns.
"Ken has such terrific instincts for finding those moments in American history that, taken as a whole or in part, serve as touchstones," Wilson said.
PBS is using the cable TV model of making the series available to viewers as much as possible. Six two-hour episodes will air at 8 p.m. EDT Sunday through Friday, then repeat each night immediately after they end. PBS will even show the first part several times during the day on Sunday. And, starting three days after each part's broadcast, the episode will be available for streaming online.
The network believes it has the potential to widely connect with audiences, much as the series on World War II did two years ago.
PBS and Burns have a contract that stretches through 2022. PBS contributes to Burns' documentaries, but he also has to raise money himself, a task that has grown more difficult with the recession.
Upcoming projects in various stages of development include films on Prohibition, the Dust Bowl, the Roosevelt family, Vietnam and New York's Central Park jogger case.
The devoted Boston fan is also filming an "extra inning" to his 1994 series about baseball.
"It's not true that he's doing this just for the Red Sox," who have won two world championships since the last film, Wilson said. "That may be partly true, but not completely true."