“The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” is a six-episode television series directed by Ken Burns and written and co-produced by Dayton Duncan. Filmed over the course of more than six years at some of nature’s most spectacular locales from Acadia to Zion — The National Parks: America’s Best Idea really does express one of our best ideas ever, through the lives of some amazing people who work to preserve amazing sites.
Between the television series and companion book by the same name, we gain insights about numerous parks, including Zion National Park. Although the area was first protected by President Robert Taft in 1909 as Mukuntuweap National Monument, it wasn’t until World War I that an official from the Department of the Interior actually visited.
That was Horace Albright, assistant to Stephen Mather, the first Director of National Parks. While Mather was laid up with one of his periodic and debilitating bouts with depression, Albright visited Zion Canyon and was so impressed by the “towering rock walls, splashed with brilliant hues of tans and reds interspersed with whites,” that he wanted it to be expanded into a national park.
Albright felt that the name Mukuntuweap was too hard to remember. Instead, Albright accepted the name the local Mormons used for it — Zion. Albright was able to persuade President Wilson and Congressional leaders to make the change. In late 1919, Congress created Zion National Park.
Later, when Mather was recovered, Albright brought his boss to visit Zion. Like Albright, Mather was equally enthralled with Zion’s beauty — so much so that he made annual visits to Zion for another 10 years. Albright even brought Mather blindfolded to the site overlooking the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon. Mather was delighted.
Burns and Duncan make a good case that based on his visits to Zion and Bryce Canyon, Mather became enamoured with the red-rock country of southern Utah and northern Arizona. In quick succession, Arches and Bryce Canyon become national parks, as did the mighty Grand Canyon to the south, elevated to national park status from poorly-protected monument status.
Mather embraced the automobile as a means to get more visitors to his beloved national parks, encouraging road construction and opening the east side of the park with the Mt. Caramel Tunnel — a mile-long tunnel dug through solid rock, with half-a-dozen picture windows framing the scenery outside the tunnel.
But Mather also recognized the power and influence of the railroads, who would benefit from tourists traveling by rail to the nation’s growing number of national parks — including Zion. Mather encouraged Union Pacific Railroad to develop the Zion National Park concession. A rail line was built to Cedar City and buses ferried tourists to the Zion Lodge in Zion Canyon.
When Albright became Director of the National Parks in 1930, the Great Depression was picking up steam. To deal with staggering unemployment rates, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched the Civilian Conservation Corps and poured $218 million into the national parks, including Zion’s famed Angels Landing Trail.