I hope everyone who’s been watching the epic PBS documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea takes inspiration from the series, which was produced by Ken Burns and his longtime collaborator, writer Dayton Duncan. But one thing I hope they’re not inspired to do is follow in Duncan’s footsteps and attempt to visit all 58 national parks, a lifelong journey that he chronicles in the problematically titled article “Collect ’Em All” in the July-August Sierra magazine.
What’s wrong with visiting all the parks? Well, for starters, doing so would leave a massive carbon footprint. When Duncan unknowingly began his quest in 1959, visiting several parks on his Iowa family’s extended vacation, gasoline was cheap and seemingly plentiful and the idea of “carbon miles” was a million miles away. But now, alas, we know better: If we burned the auto and airplane fuel it would take to visit all the parks, many of which are in remote and hard-to-reach locations, we’d emit a huge amount of CO2 that ultimately would work against the very places we’re trying to preserve.
For another thing, “park bagging,” as I’ve heard it called, is ultimately an elitist pursuit, a game that very few can play. Face it, only the wealthiest and luckiest among us has the vacation time, the money, and the means to have a chance at ticking off all 58 parks, and even announcing your achievement to the world can come perilously close to bragging about what an amazingly fortunate life you lead—not the sort of message parks advocates should be sending. The National Parks quotes Teddy Roosevelt exclaiming at the Grand Canyon, “This is one of the great sights that every American, if he can travel at all, should see.” That middle clause, added wisely, is essential: Many Americans find it hard to travel to just one national park, let alone all of them.
Finally, the “collect ’em all” mentality goes against a better, nobler impulse, which is to get to know the land intimately. Better that we should acquaint ourselves with one, two, or a few parks very well than attempt to superficially survey them all in baseball-card-collector fashion. Several years ago, I worked for the summer in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, driving a tourist shuttle van between the tiny gateway community of McCarthy and the mining relic town of Kennicott. Among my passengers I met a few park baggers, most memorably a man and his teenage son. They “explored” the park in an afternoon, which meant strolling among Kennicott’s dilapidated buildings, looking up at the stupendous glaciers around them, and then riding my van back down to resume their journey. Never mind that Wrangell-St. Elias is the nation’s largest park at 13 million acres, and that even someone who’s there for months, as I was, can barely claim to have scratched the surface of its vast wonder. The man told me that they were off next to the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, which they would fly over in a bush plane—not even setting foot on the tundra. They added both parks to their all-important list, yet they didn’t have a true wilderness experience in either place.
Now, I’ve got to cut Duncan some slack: He racked up some of his visits while researching and filming The National Parks, and the greater good that may come of the series is arguably worth the carbon he burned to do it. (This sort of rationale is how many “environmental” speakers and writers justify their flight-intensive, conference-hopping lifestyles.) But still, it seems that he, of all people, ought to know better than to wear his completed life list as some badge of honor.
Sour grapes? Maybe. I once thought I would travel to many of the world’s most beautiful places. The Patagonian Andes, Antarctica, the Galapagos Islands—all awaited my intrepid exploration. Now, with the reality of climate change hitting full force, I see that even if I had the means, visiting all my dream destinations just wouldn’t be right, and that in some ways staying close to home is the best way to honor the earth. So yes, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that there are some national parks I will never see, and that photo or video images will be my only acquaintance with them. Which is why I’ve been watching every last episode of The National Parks.