Protecting Places: Historic Preservation and Public Broadcasting

The Nature of Preservation: Interpreting History with the Natural Environment

Americans also interpret the past through natural landscapes. While many environmentalists argue that landscape preservation is key to maintaining a safe, habitable planet (seen in AAPB's Digital Exhibit Climate Change Conversations), plenty of Americans also value the historical meaning of the nation’s natural landscapes, and have struggled to keep them wild as a result. Public broadcasting stations have covered such initiatives in local educational programs, magazine series, and documentaries. Oregon Public Broadcasting created an educational program on tourism and Yellowstone as the first national park, which set a precedent for the federal government to actively participate in the preservation of the natural environment for the benefit of Americans. In 1996, Wyoming PBS’s documentary series Main Street, Wyoming explored Devil’s Tower. Devil’s Tower was the first national monument and was preserved with the Antiquities Act, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. This act saved national natural landmarks for historical, cultural, and educational purposes.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson officially established the National Park Service (NPS).25 As of 2018, the NPS has stewardship of 417 areas, including sites that preserve historic structures, but they are most recognized for their stewardship of national parks that celebrate the natural environment.26 Americans’ fascination with the nation’s natural landscape and their reverence for the nation’s national parks are reflected in the countless public broadcasting programs that explore these areas. These programs admire the natural beauty in parks like Joshua Tree or Giant Sequoia National Monument, both featured in radio stories by Southern California Public Radio. With the responsibility of interpreting hundreds of sites in the American landscape, the NPS paired up with the Organization of American Historians to produce Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service. The publication points out that the NPS has become a national narrator of cultural as well as natural landscapes and emphasizes the importance of relying on historical scholarship to aid in the interpretation of such sites.

Similarly, Oregon Public Broadcasting has documented the NPS through the series Great Lodges of the National Parks, which explores the cultural values Americans have invested in National Parks, rather than looking at the landscape strictly for its environmental utility. Praising NPS’ efforts and echoing the narratives presented at NPS sites, the public broadcasting stations that have explored these locations reinforce the central role the NPS has had in interpreting the natural landscape.

While many government agencies actively preserve the natural landscape protected under the NPS, Americans are aware that these and other areas can remain at risk. During the environmental movement, which many consider to have launched after the first Earth Day in the 1970s, grassroots activists sparked vociferous protests against the government’s treatment of the natural landscape. These activists encouraged Americans to voice how they imagined their relationship to nature, and citizens often turned to public broadcasting to do so. As a result, public broadcasting has drawn attention to at-risk landscapes and local preservation efforts. Southern California Public Radio has dedicated programming to environmental issues that seeks to share and advocate for the preservation of the natural landscape, a defining feature for Southern California communities. This is heard in the radio coverage devoted to the discussion of the California Desert Protection Act, the effect of climate change and historic preservation on the Sierra Nevada, the restoration of the Ballona Wetlands, and the efforts of environmentalists to preserve open spaces along the Arroyo Seco riverbeds. Public media’s work in documenting and broadcasting issues pertaining to America’s natural environment demonstrates a common interest in our natural landscapes and the battle over where, how, and what natural resources should be preserved for recreation and the health of the environment.

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From episode 312 of The Advocates

Courtesy of WGBH

Price, Albert M, photographer. Yosemite, "Grizzly Giant" sequoia. None. [Between 1914 and 1929] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Nicholson, Frank S., Artist, and Sponsor United States National Park Service. Wild life The national parks preserve all life. None. [Nyc: nyc art project, works projects administration, between 1936 and 1940] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

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