Humble Md. Park Typifies Shift From Scenic to Cerebral
National System 'Uniquely American,' Unevenly Attended
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Welcome to America's 344th-best idea.
It sits in the woods of Charles County, a monument to a man who -- besides signing the Declaration of Independence -- didn't do much to deserve one. In a time of revolution, he was a moderate. In an era of national heroes, he played a modest part as a Maryland state senator. Then he died, and his house was gutted by a fire.
Somehow, though, Thomas Stone still got a national park. But not a very popular one.
The Thomas Stone National Historic Site ranked 344th last year among 360 sites where the National Park Service tracks attendance. On Saturday, the park will be the backdrop for a preview of filmmaker Ken Burns's new miniseries, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea."
Rangers at the lonely visitors center here hope the film will draw people and help them make their case that the Thomas Stone site is not a mistake but actually an example of the park system's next big idea.
If anybody believes it, there will be lots of available parking.
"We're here," said Scott Hill, the site's supervisory park ranger. "And [we] want to see people."
Burns's six-part series premieres Sunday on public broadcasting stations. In it, Burns focuses heavily on "The Big 58," the scenery-rich icons such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and Hawaii Volcanoes that carry the formal title "National Park."
On Saturday, the Thomas Stone site will show a 45-minute preview of the Burns series at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. and offer tours of the home and grounds. The film will also be shown on the Ellipse in downtown Washington during a celebration of National Public Lands Day.
The point of Burns's narrative is that the concept of a protected slice of nature -- open not only to the wealthy or to royalty but to everybody -- was an American invention.
The parks were "an idea . . . as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence, and just as radical," the film's narrator says.
In 12 hours of film, the Thomas Stone National Historic Site isn't mentioned once.