Last Thursday, this California State Parks staffer joined a comrade from the National Park Service for a sneak preview of documentarian Ken Burns’ newest series set to air on PBS in September, “The National Parks – America’s Best Idea.” The evening was quite a treat beginning with a serendipitous brush with President Obama’s motorcade headed south on the 101 as we traveled north in the carpool lane through Burbank. An impressive show, for sure. But not to be outdone was the veritable NPS rangercade that escorted Burns through the crowd and into the screening at Paramount Ranch.
Part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Paramount Ranch is itself a National Park Unit and an ideal setting in the golden hour light to welcome visitors for park hikes, docent tours, and other activities prior to the screening.
KCET personality and friend of all California parks, Huell Howser, was on hand to moderate the evening’s events with the folksy enthusiasm we’ve all come to expect. But Huell also provided some insightful commentary. On Burns’ engaging view of history and unique storytelling he aptly stated that he “makes us feel better about who we are” as Americans. Burns, for his part was humble, thoughtful, and genuinely awed with regard to his latest subject emphasizing that preservation of land for public use and enjoyment is a uniquely American enterprise, calling it “democracy applied to the landscape.” In equal measure, he spoke appreciatively of those people, past and present, dedicated to preserving our most beautiful landscapes and endangered wildlife, making the National Park system what it is today. He spoke further of a commitment to life-long learning, service, and stewardship that is cultivated in tandem with a love of our National Parks and public landscapes reassuring the audience that “in difficult times, parks have thrived.”
From a State Parks perspective, it is notable that “America’s Best Idea” originated in California. In 1864 Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees was deeded to the State as a public trust in a land grant by President Lincoln “…to be held for public use, resort, and recreation…” a direct precursor to the modern California State Parks department and mission. Yosemite was the original California State Park and later incorporated as part of the National Park Service which was established in 1916.
California,with it its rich landscape, was also not surprisingly home to early environmental activism. In the 1880’s Ralph Sidney Smith, editor of the Redwood City Times and Gazette began writing about the need for preservation of California’s unique redwood forests. The Sempervirens Club, formed in 1900, carried on the crusade for preservation and their vocal advocacy led to the creation of the modern State Park system with the opening of the first modern park, “Big Basin” in Santa Cruz County in 1904.
Here at LASHP the legacy of that early activism is particularly resonant. In the same spirit of preservation, LASHP was rescued from pending industrial development by a coalition of thirty-five neighborhood, urban environmental, and social justice organizations. The Chinatown Yard Alliance pulled together in joint recognition of the site’s historical significance and its potential to fulfill a tremendous need for open space and possible reconnection to the Los Angeles river. Thanks to the vision and hard work of concerned Angelenos we have this lovely space and a neighborhood poised to transform around it as opposed to blocks of warehouses and more of the industrial same-old.