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Acadia Among 'Unique Stories' in New Ken Burns Film

August 04, 2009 - PORTLAND -- Filmmaker Ken Burns calls the national park system "America's best idea."

And he thinks one of the best stories about how that idea came to fruition happened in Maine, when Acadia National Park was created in 1919. Before that, national parks had been created through eminent domain in the expansive West. The government basically took giant swaths of undeveloped land and designated them as parks.

"With Acadia, you had some wealthy people buying up some of the properties that had been owned by cottagers and creating a park as a gift to the United States, and that had never happened before," said Burns, from his office in Walpole, N.H. "It's a very wonderful and unique story."

The story of the creation and evolution of the national park system is the focus of Burns' new PBS series "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." Burns will be in Portland on Thursday to present a 55-minute package of highlights from the 12-hour, six-episode series and to answer questions at Merrill Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Dayton Duncan, the series' writer, will speak as well. Tickets are $15.

The series will be shown on PBS TV stations, beginning Sept. 27.

Because promotional budgets for PBS have been decreased, Burns said he's had to hit the road to get the word out about his latest film project. By late July, he said he had visited about 80 cities to promote "The National Parks." Besides the screening in Portland, he'll be visiting Bar Harbor, near Acadia, on Wednesday.

"It's like that old saying about a tree falling in the forest. If you make a good movie and nobody knows it's on, it's not really good," said Burns.

MPBN: BURNS' SERIES STAND OUT

For the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, there is hope that an appearance by a filmmaker of Burns' celebrity status will not only draw attention to the series but to what MPBN does every day.

"Any series by Ken Burns stands out, and especially during these economically and environmentally challenging times, people will connect with a series about the national parks," said Charles Beck, vice president for radio and television for MPBN. "By his being here, maybe more people will also find out what else MPBN offers, and come to appreciate that as well."

The series tells the chronological story of the national park system which began in 1872 with Yellowstone National Park and now includes 58 parks and 333 national monuments and historic sites.

The series was made over six years and includes more than 40 interviews, as well as footage from many of the best-known parks, including Acadia, Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon.

The series focuses on the individual people involved in the creation of the parks. In the case of Acadia, the focus is on private landowners, such as Charles W. Eliot, a president of Harvard University, and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr.

Eliot, who had a home in the area, became involved with the campaign to preserve land there after his son died. His son had written about an idea he had to buy up some of the land on Mount Desert Island, where most of Acadia is now, and put it into a trust. When the elder Eliot saw his late son's writing on this idea, he devoted his life to making it happen.

Eliot's efforts attracted another local landowner, George Dorr, who essentially "depleted his inherited wealth buying land" for Acadia, according to Duncan, a producer as well as writer of the series. Eventually, Rockefeller became interested in Eliot's effort as well.

"It's really a counter-intuitive story that proves the power of the national park idea," Duncan said of Acadia's development. "Even at a time when many of the wealthiest Americans were buying up the choicest lots on the Eastern Seaboard to prove how rich they were, and making it highly exclusive, there were these other people from the same social strata who were buying up land and generously saying 'We want this to be for everyone.' "

The idea for the project came from Duncan about 10 years ago, after he, his wife and two children toured national parks in the West. It reminded him of how he and his parents had toured national parks when he was a child, around 1959.

"It made me realize how important these places are to many American families, a place where they can connect to the land and to themselves," said Duncan.

That idea of creating places where all Americans can connect to the land and to their nation's history is really the overarching theme of the film, Burns said.

"It's really democracy applied to the landscape, this setting aside of obvious national treasures for everyone to enjoy," said Burns.

"Without these (parks), we would have lost so much," he continued. "There would be no bison, without national parks. The parks give people a connection to what this country was like before we tamed it, and that's an amazingly powerful thing, I think."

By RAY ROUTHIER, Staff Writer, Portland Press Herald, August 2, 2009


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