Reveling in 'America's Best Idea'

It's dawn at the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park on the coast of Maine, and a couple of hundred early-risers have gathered to watch the first rays of sunlight that hit the United States each day turn Frenchman bay to gold.

Michael Minder brought his family here for their first trip ever to a national park.

"Well, we heard about the sunrises and sunsets here," Minder told CBS News National Correspondent Jim Axelrod for "Sunday Morning."

"And how does it actually compare to what you thought it was gonna be?" Axelrod asked.

"Oh, incredible!" Minder said.

"It's amazing," said his wife Debbie. "It's so many adjectives you can use to describe it. Breathtaking. Stunning. Beautiful."

The Minders woke their kids at 4 a.m. to get here on time.

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns is here, too.

"This is our tribe, this is our people," Burns told Axelrod.

He's in Maine to promote his latest project, a history of the national parks, but first taking a moment to savor the extraordinary beauty with his "tribe."

"For millennia, the worship of God took place in temples built by man," Burns said. "But all of a sudden in this Garden of Eden that we had inherited, it was possible to find God in nature."

"The National Parks: America's Best Idea" is the latest undertaking for Burns, a man who's been asking "Who are we?" for the last 25 years. Episode One, the first of six, premieres next Sunday on PBS.

In the film, Burns calls the concept of the national parks "an idea that was as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence and just as radical."

"For the first time in human history, land was set aside, not for kings and noblemen, not for the rich, but for everybody in all time," Burns told Axelrod.

Yellowstone, home of Old Faithful, was our first national park, established by an act of Congress in 1872. Since then, the national park system has grown to 83 million acres of protected land, historic sites and natural wonders.

Acadia is the easternmost link in a chain of 58 national parks which stretch from Maine to American Samoa. Among the tens of thousands of acres, you'll find the highest mountain on the continent, the lowest point in the U.S., glaciers, grizzlies, and geysers - all of which belong to all of us.

Acadia became a national park in 1919, much of the land a gift from John D. Rockefeller Jr., the only son of Standard Oil billionaire John D. Rockefeller, who also used the great wealth his father had accumulated to protect the Grand Tetons and the Great Smoky Mountains for the American people, polishing the family name in the process.

"He would come here and supervise the construction," Burns told Axelrod about Rockefeller.

Employing his familiar technique, Burns tells the stories of people, famous and not, who dedicated their lives to protecting places they loved.

People like naturalist John Muir, who considered the towering granite cliffs of Yosemite Valley to be our national cathedral.

And Stephen Mather, first director of the National Park Service, who in the 1920s inspired Americans to explore their national parks in their brand new automobiles.

Margaret and Edward Gehrke were two of those Americans, just a couple of regular folks from Lincoln, Neb., whose scrapbooks record one couple's love affair with our wild places.

"Let those who will buy lands and horde money, we will have our memories, glad memories of golden experiences together," reads a passage from Margaret Gehrke's diary.

Of course, there was Teddy Roosevelt, the father of much of the national park system as we know it.

"If Teddy Roosevelt had not said, 'Hands off,' about the Grand Canyon, would we have what we know as the Grand Canyon today?" Axelrod asked historian Douglas Brinkley.

"Not at all," Brinkley said. "It would have been gone."

Brinkley has written a best seller about Roosevelt and his bold vision that preserved our most valuable national treasures. During his presidency he created five new national parks, 18 national monuments, 55 wildlife preserves and 15 national forests.

"He takes an obscure antiquities act of 1906, which says, you know, the government, if they find dinosaur bones, can sequester off 50 acres to do a dig and call it federal property," Brinkley told Axelrod. "He took that and applied it to the Grand Canyon and saved 600,000 acres. Today it's over two million acres, the Grand Canyon."

Nature settled Roosevelt's often turbulent soul like nothing else.

"In 1903, there's the president of the United States camping in Yellowstone," Brinkley told Axelrod. "He then went to the Grand Canyon and did the same. The message is clear. The president thinks these parks are really important."

"In some ways, isn't T.R. representative of what happens for so many Americans when they break away from the stress of their other 50 or 51 weeks of the year and they come to this space?" Axelrod asked Burns.

"That's exactly right," Burns said. "T.R. is an exaggerated microcosm of us. Something will be changed. Our molecules will be rearranged in our national parks and we won't forget them."

Park Ranger Shelton Johnson has been getting his molecules rearranged in Yosemite National Park for 15 years.

"You know, this is one of those places where being awestruck is just the way it is," Johnson told Axelrod. "When we become adults, we become jaded. We become so anesthetized to the beauty of the earth, we stop seeing it and hearing it. But when you enter a national park, it reawakens that sense of wonder that we all had as kids. Everything is new, everything is fresh, this is the first day that has ever been."

For Elaine Heeran, visiting Yosemite is about sharing memories of her childhood with her children.

"I came here when I was a child, and I remember the tunnel tree," Heeran told Axelrod. "I wanted my kids to see the big trees."

The Heeran family has come all the way from Minnesota to marvel at the giant sequoias, the largest living things on the planet.

"To think that they're a thousand, it's amazing," daughter Mikela Heeran said.

"It makes me feel like the teeniest thing in the world," son Spencer Heeran said.

"It pulls you out of whatever it is that you are into something that 's much greater than you," Johnson, the park ranger, said. "I've never been in any other type of environment that had that capacity to evoke so much wonder."

"There will be very little anger on this ridge this morning," Burns told Axelrod during the sunrise in Acadia. "Very little acquisitiveness, very little greed, very little sadness. That begins to remind you of the deep and abiding possibilities that the parks offer."

And on this summer morning, for the Minder family, those possibilities are taking flight.

"You want to hit a few more of these things?" Axelrod asked the Minders.

"I would love to," Michael Minder said.

"The Grand Canyon," Debbie Minder said.

"Yeah," responded her husband, "all of them."

For more information:

"The National Parks: America's Best Idea" (PBS)
Grand Teton National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Yosemite National Park
"Wilderness Warrior" by Douglas Brinkley (HarperCollins)
"Gloryland" by Shelton Johnston (Sierra Club)

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the senior national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for "CBS This Morning," the "CBS Evening News," "CBS Sunday Morning," and other CBS News broadcasts.