Yes, the very mention of Ken Burns is enough to set the average citizen’s jaw yawning. Yes, you’re glad it’s not on TV anymore. But that’s no reason not to grab a bowl of popcorn and a six pack of local, wind-powered micro brew, and make your way through at least the first installment.

Yes, it was promoted to the hilt—for more than a year crammed down our throats by the likes of GM and Bank of America (whose interests may not be entirely altruistic). Yes, there are the overly-precious voiceovers, the numbingly slow trademark pans across sepia-toned still photos, the unabashed nature porn, the incessant, cloying soundtrack of fiddles and banjos.

But here, to our surprise, the writer Dayton Duncan has done a fine job pulling together the intricate and eminently dramatic story of how, against the tide, this most radical notion came to be—the idea of setting aside parts of the country as national parks, owned by We The People—for the benefit not just of Americans but of the whole world.

It’s a hell of a story. And for the following six reasons (and more) it’s one worth hearing, again and again:

1. Because “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread.” (John Muir)

2. Because “Here we find nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs all other circumstance, and judges like a god all men that come to her.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

3. Because “The great curse of this age and of the American people is its materialistic tendency. Money, money is the cry everywhere, until our people are held up to the world as noted for nothing except the acquisition of money at the expense of all aesthetic taste and of all love of nature.” (Senator George Vest, MO, 1883)

4. Because “Unless steps are taken by government to withhold them from the grasp of individuals, all places favorable in scenery to the recreation of the mind and body will be closed against the great body of the people.” (Frederick Law Olmsted)

5. Because “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountain is going home; that wildness is necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” (John Muir)

6. And because we may have lost track (again), somewhere along the way.

Where to see it?

Alas, the full episodes are no longer available online. But you can still see clips, deleted scenes, and untold stories at pbs. org. You can buy the whole series and other fun national parks/PBS schwag here. You can get both video and audio on iTunes, put it on your Netflix queue, or just check your local library.

Community Connection

For more Matador on parks worldwide, check David DeFranza’s Back to Nature: 13 of the World’s Richest National Parks, or Alan Velasco’s stunning Photo Essay on Glacier.

Been to a National Park lately? How are we doing? Are we living up to the dream? Share your thoughts below…

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