Yosemite ranger unexpected star of Burns' national parks series

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PASADENA, Calif. -- Filmmaker Ken Burns should be the best ambassador for his new film, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." But Shelton Johnson, a ranger at Yosemite National Park and one of Burns' interview subjects, may have him beat.

The 12-hour, six-part documentary series, airing at 8 tonight through Friday on WQED-TV, features many talking heads -- historians, writers, environmentalists, former park service directors -- but none as eloquent as Johnson, a ranger at Yosemite National Park.

At the start of Monday's two-hour episode, Johnson describes delivering mail on a snowmobile in Yellowstone National Park and encountering a bison with ice crystallizing around it as it breathed.

"If I had not been on that machine, I would have thought I'd been thrust back into the ice age," Johnson says in "The National Parks." "I was all, alone, but I felt I was in the presence of everything around me, and I was never alone. It was one of those moments where you get pulled outside yourself into the environment around you. ... A single moment in a place like Yellowstone or most of the national parks can last forever."

'The National Parks: America's Best Idea'
  • When: 8 tonight through Friday, WQED.
  • 'The National Parks: America's Best Idea'
  • When: 8 p.m. today through Friday, WQED.

Burns and producer/writer Dayton Duncan interviewed Johnson as one of dozens of sources for the film. Initially they approached him as an expert on the U.S. Army regiment of Buffalo Soldiers assigned to protect Yosemite and Sequoia parks.

"As we do with all people that we interview, we ask larger, wide-ranging questions," Duncan said, "and we recognized within four or five minutes that he had a lot more to say than the story of the African-American Buffalo Soldiers and is a great, eloquent spokesperson for what the parks stand for and mean."

"The National Parks" begins in 1851 and advances chronologically, ending in about 1980. Burns said it was a deliberate decision to not bring the story of the parks up to the present.

"Our business is history, and history is about stories that are over," Burns said at a PBS press conference last month. But in looking back at the history of the parks, he found links to more recent controversies.

"All of the contemporary issues that we debate and argue about have historical antecedents," he said. "It's not so much that there's cycles of history as some historians like to popularize. It's just that human nature is the same. So many of the same issues, many of the same problems and arguments and conflicts that we discuss today are present in the history of the parks."

One of those recurrent issues is the impact of humans on the park, particularly now that annual attendance at the parks has peaked and in some cases declined. Burns said he hopes that the film will drive more Americans to visit and re-visit the parks and that "every park superintendent will be angry at us.

"Traffic jams in Yellowstone and Yosemite and the Grand Canyon are important problems for a democracy to have," he said. "The worst thing you want to have is nobody coming because when nobody comes, there are no constituents arguing. ... Just as 'The Civil War' did to sort of [increase] attendance at the battlefields, [we hope this might] get that kind of renewal that the parks continually need every generation or so of people coming back and remembering what it's like. And the good thing about democracy is that as messy as it is, you take everybody."

As for Johnson, he's written a novel, "Gloryland" ($25, Sierra Club/Counterpoint), about a Buffalo Soldier posted to the newly created Yosemite National Park in 1903. But don't expect him to leave his ranger work behind.

"I can't think of anything better than what I am already doing, being a park ranger," Johnson said. "People that join the Park Service do it because it is a passion that unites what they feel internally with what they see and experience around them externally. So from my point of view, anything else would be going downhill, literally, from being a park ranger."

Contact TV editor Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. First Published September 27, 2009 4:00 AM


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