Ken Burns is right. National parks are one of America’s best ideas, the everlasting symbol of a peculiar brand of cultural idealism that has allowed nature to triumph over politics. What were branded as “worthless lands” to justify their preservation are now the country’s jewels.

Burns’ six-part documentary series on national parks, which appeared last week on public television, was meant to remind Americans of the stunning achievement the parks represent. Critics have whined the series focused too much on bland bureaucratic and political wrangling — the creation of the National Park Service isn’t nearly as compelling as Gettysburg, after all — but this viewpoint misses the mark.

Good governing isn’t necessarily about the sex appeal of the process. The parks were preserved because of a staunch belief in certain inalienable principles — the public good, the sanctity of the environment — that were complemented by the diligent, patient machinery of U.S. democracy.

What was striking in reviewing the history is the lack of demagoguery. Some of the most transcendent protections for the parks stemmed from minor provisions in massive bills. While this is routinely assailed as hiding decisions from the people, this quirk of American governing cannot be so easily decried when it allows for something as magical as the national parks system to be born.

For six nights, it was a pleasure to sit on our laurels and be entertained and informed about our superiority and foresight. Yet this weeklong exercise in patriotism cannot linger and obscure the challenges ahead for the parks, as Burns’ testament to our majesty belies our continuing duty.

In the national parks, the American people have preserved immense cathedrals of nature, which must be preserved for future generations, but also maintained for public enjoyment. Burns’ series showed the success of the former; unfortunately, the latter is proving more problematic.

America’s parks are chronically underfunded and visitation is declining. Acadia National Park in Maine, for example, saw its 2008 visitor count drop to 2.075 million, its second-lowest total since 1966, according to the National Park Service. (Visitation peaked in 1989 at more than 5 million.)

This decline has a twofold impact. It reduces the resources available in the short-term for the parks, while also hindering their ability to justify greater investments. Why should we spend what’s needed on our parks, if we — as a people — won’t visit to enjoy their splendor?

It also makes arguing that new parks — such as the proposed one in the North Woods, for instance — difficult. If we cannot appreciate and maintain the parks we have, it makes little sense to create more.

Visionaries who fought for the park system did so for future generations. Well, here we are. National parks may be America’s best idea, but they are in danger of becoming America’s worst failing if the robust idealism of their inception fades against the apathy of the present.

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