The Magazine

Park Disservice

Andrew Ferguson, cave man.

Oct 19, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 05 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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I read that the moviemaker Ken Burns spent six years filming his new PBS documentary, which is roughly twice as long as it takes to sit through it. I started to watch it last week but lost interest pretty quickly and moved on to other things. For all I know it's still on. Every time I wander by the living room, there it is, shimmering from the ol' flat-screen: soft-focus sunrises and sepia photographs of old-timers, the background tweeting of birds and the ponderous experts in half-light, speaking of "our deepest and best selves" and "who we are as Americans." And the mournful music, of course-always the mournful, suicidal music, filling the air with the weepy piano and the sniffling fiddle and the dolorous dulcimer, as played by the Hemlock Society Jug Band 'n' Country Jamboree Quartet.

For his new documentary Burns chose as his subject, honest to God, the National Park Service, one of the federal government's most elaborate bureaucracies. The guys down at the Bureau of Labor Statistics must be livid they didn't get to him first. Burns is a great admirer of the park service, as I am not, which may account for my quick loss of interest in his lengthy video tribute. The show's title claims that the park service is "America's Best Idea." I don't think it even makes the top ten. Is it better than drive-thru liquor stores or the WetVac? I went to Yosemite once and was touched as if with celestial fire by the obligatory awe, and I am still grateful, in an abstract way, that it hasn't been developed into the Yosemite Woodlands TowneHome and Golfe Community, with blocks of condos rising along Yogi Bear Court and Boo Boo Circle. But this great gift, negative though it is, was given us by the old park service, not the new.

I don't think Burns recognizes the crucial distinction. The old park service was composed of grizzled, slightly disreputable outdoorsmen willing to civilize themselves for the sake of a regular pay check. Today's park service, dating back to the 1970s, is composed of graduate students. You can still trace their varying influences in many of the nation's parks, where a fortuitous lack of funds has sometimes stymied the plans of modernizers and preserved palimpsests of what the old rangers valued, in sharp contrast to the new. What the old rangers valued was pleasing the general public.

As a boy I visited Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, the longest cave in the world, and I returned not long ago, startled to see how quickly the unchanging grandeur of nature can change when it's left in the hands of federal employees. I don't mean the cave had changed-at least I don't think it's changed. I couldn't tell for sure, since our public servants have barred the public from most of this public place. Visitors used to see the cave from guide boats drifting silently on underground rivers. Rangers lit the way with torches, and in an act of unapologetic showmanship they would reveal the vastness of the darkened spaces by tossing flaming streamers to the ceiling. Ancient mummies lurked in the shadows. Outside a grand old hotel with stone fireplaces and plank floors beckoned from a stand of shade trees. There were tennis courts and shuffleboard and a swimming pool, and movies at night.

All have since been "discontinued" by the park service. It replaced the hotel with a concession done up DMV-style. Weeds sprout from the shuffleboard and tennis courts-games are a frivolous distraction from the rangers' important task of instructing visitors about the dangers visitors pose to the cave. The presentation is purposely dull and didactic; I can't imagine what a little boy would make of it. The most spectacular spaces, such as the Cathedral and Snowball rooms, are open only intermittently, and one ranger said he hoped that even these might soon be declared off-limits. "The resource is just too precious," he said. If rangers discovered the cave today, we might never hear about it.

Down the road from Mammoth Cave, just beyond the federal property line, are the Diamond Caverns, family-owned for nearly a century. The lodge is built from stone and cedar. The rock formations are lit with brilliant lights, some colored, and come shaped like bacon strips, haystacks, wedding cakes, and altars. They inspire much clowning from the guides. If you have the money you can get married there, with music bouncing from the limestone walls. Poor Ken Burns would bust an artery at the tastelessness and profiteering.

The park service that he reveres, however, usually triumphs in the end. The guide told me the ultimate dimensions of Diamond Caverns remain a mystery, but if one of the tentacles can be shown to intersect underground with any part of Mammoth Cave, Diamond immediately "becomes the property of the park service."