‘This is America’ unveils stirring connections to national parks

Tracy Biga MacLean at screening.

While parking at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., the other day, the San Gabriel Mountains looked close enough to walk to.

This college — set against the panorama of the mountains — was perfect for the screening of Ken Burn’s film “This is America.”

San Gabriel Mountains Forever, a partnership of many individuals and groups including The Wilderness Society, co-hosted the event with KCET (the Los Angeles PBS affiliate) and the Intercollegiate Media Studies of the Claremont Colleges.

Truth be told, you need your sturdiest hiking boots and a lot of spare time to ascend this ruggedly steep range. From Claremont, the eastern end of the mountains soar sharply off the valley floor and include Mt. Baldy, which at 10,064 feet, is the tallest peak in Los Angeles County.

The mountain trompe-l’oeil was possible on this balmy September evening (9-16), because the skies were remarkably clear and also free of smoke from the recent Station Fire, the county’s largest wildfire. Thankfully, the blaze never made it this far east.

About 80 guests filled Pitzer’s Broad Center to watch the 45-minute movie, a companion film to Burns’ upcoming six-part series, “The National Parks: America's Best Idea.” It was a nice mix of conservation-minded individuals, Claremont College students (Pitzer is part of a Claremont consortium of undergrad and grad schools) and local residents with kids in tow.

Through Burns’ stirring film, we met a diverse cast of people — all colors and backgrounds — who have a deep connection to the national parks. At times the movie was like opening a hidden journal, to learn about the dedicated individuals who often toiled thanklessly, if not invisibly, to preserve the public landscapes they loved so dearly.

“This is America” is a nice counterpoint to efforts to protect the San Gabriel Mountains. And in a brief Q&A after the film, several guests asked about current work to add new Wilderness and Wild and Scenic River protections to the beautiful forests and rivers nearby.

One of them, C. Freeman Allen, a professor emeritus, recalled his own conservation efforts in the range more than 30 years ago. “It was a very good feeling to get the Sheep Mountain Wilderness established,” Allen said. “And I’m still working on other preservation efforts locally.”

photo: Tracy Biga MacLean, Academic Director of Intercollegiate Media Studies at the Claremont Colleges, helped organize the Burns screening at Pitzer College. She is accompanied by a PBS poster of the upcoming Ken Burns documentary series on National Parks at our screening last week.