The role of people in preserving nature, according to America’s National Parks docuseries

Carnivorous plants, turquoise-waters, spawning coral reefs, and more need our help.
An elk grazing in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
An elk grazing in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. National Geographic/Justin Grubb

The quote “take only memories, leave nothing but footprints” is most often attributed to Duwamish Chief Si’ahl, or Chief Seattle. This saying is a core value for the 400 plus parks that make up the United States National Park Service (NPS). However, it is a lesser known quote from Seattle, Washington’s namesake that is at the heart of the second season of National Geographic’s series America’s National Parks.

“This we know; The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know, all things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected.”

[Related: The 10 most underrated national parks in the US.]

That human-Earth connection is a consistent presence in the five-part series that covers the mountain tops of Grand Teton National Park and the interconnected biodiversity in some of the more off-the-beaten-path parks. Such hidden gems include the tropical marinescape of Biscayne National Park in Florida, Voyageurs National Park in the wilds of northern Minnesota, the rugged Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Southern California, and Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park and Preserve.

An aerial view of the turquoise blue waters of Crescent Lake in Lake Clark National Park. Tall mountains surround the lake.
An aerial view of the turquoise blue waters of Crescent Lake in Lake Clark National Park. CREDIT: National Geographic/Taylor John Turner.

Code of ethics

Even amongst the dramatic landscapes or the bioluminescent glow of coral reef spawning, the presence of people never fully disappears. Wildlife documentaries must strike a balance between getting the best footage for their films without disturbing nature.

“Most wildlife production companies will have codes of ethics, and will have the same motivation,”  America’s National Parks executive producer Anwar Mamon tells PopSci. “Our motivation is always natural behavior. Animal welfare comes first and it comes above anything that we’re doing. The secret weapon in all of this is local intel.”

For Mamon, working alongside local camera crews, NPS rangers, and indigenous peoples was the first tool in centering priceless local knowledge in producing the series. Travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic meant that Mamon was often working with local crews who practically called these parks home, and had years of experience  filming wildlife while impacting their behavior as little as possible. Special attention was also taken to limit the number of crew members at a shoot.

Tools of the trade

Mixed in with this local knowledge, some new tech aided the effort to leave only footprints. Wildstar Films has a department dedicated to helping filmmakers create new gear for their productions. “We’re very lucky. I’m not sure the tech department likes it, but we can go to them and say, ‘we want to do this, is that possible,’” laughs Mamon.

[Related: Connecting national parks could help generations of wildlife thrive.]

A new camera was used for an up-close-and-personal look at some wolf pups in a den in Voyageurs National Park. This part of Minnesota is one of the only places in the lower 48 states that wolves have lived continuously for 8,000 years, and some of the newest members of that legacy hung out in this hideout while their parents hunt. Inside the den are remote cameras about the size of a shoebox capturing their sibling squabbles and slumbers. To hide their scent, the crew covered the cameras in mud and other vegetation in the area. 

Four wolf pups sitting outside their den at around four to five weeks old in a remote corner of Voyageurs National Park
Wolf pups outside their den at around four to five weeks old in a remote corner of Voyageurs National Park. CREDIT: National Geographic/Jake Davis.

“Wolf packs, like all parents, are very protective of their young and won’t let people or any perceived threats near them. But with them being monitored by scientists and with us working very closely with the local rangers, we were able to put quite a few cameras around the den,” says Mamon.

The series also harnesses the power of tech to film some of the parks’ critical, but admittedly less flashy flora and fauna. They used a motion controlled macro rig, which is a robotic arm that can be programmed to capture incredible detail on tiny creatures like the round-leaved sundew in Lake Clark. These “little land mines” are carnivorous plants that use glistening droplets to entice and then eat unsuspecting flies, in an equally beautiful and frightful dinner display.

“Every time we send a crew out, the changing planet, becomes more and more obvious”

Another scary reality that hangs over the series like a specter is climate change in the parks. An analysis by Climate Central of over a century’s worth of warming in 62 national parks found that all 63 percent of the parks have warmed by 2°F or more. 

Alaska’s temperatures are heating up faster than any other state, thus putting the future of the unique animals that live in the extreme elevations and tundra of Lake Clark conditions in jeopardy. Further south, it’s the saltwater mangrove forests in Florida’s Biscayne National Park that store five times more carbon dioxide than tropical forests that play a “priceless role” in the fight against climate change. 

“Most of our production was impacted in some way by our changing planet. And it’s often about the unpredictability of things. That goes to everything from birthing seasons, to the change of any seasons, and weather, especially,” says Mamon. 

The series packages a harsh reality with the hopeful message of connectivity and responsibility that Americans have to these precious landscapes. One of the core messages that the team had was that the parks need our help and that we must look after our own backyards. 

[Related: Yellowstone National Park was never built to take on the rain and snow that comes with climate change.]

The conservation success of California’s Channel Islands National Park is a prime example. After serving as an agricultural powerhouse during the Civil War to keep up with demand for wool, escaped livestock harmed the native population. The island was given the time and space to heal when it was made a National Park in 1980, and animals once presumed extinct, like the northern elephant seal, bounced back. The California brown pelican was taken off the endangered species in 2009.

“It is essentially about a national park that was very much impacted by human activity, agriculture, and has made a staggering comeback, because of the amazing work of local communities and scientists,” says Mamon.

Connecting to the future

You can’t have the signature elk herds of the Grand Tetons or the largest sockeye salmon run on Earth in Lake Clark without the vegetation and smaller animals needed to sustain the big boys. Biodiversity is essential to keeping flora and fauna thriving in the parks. 

Ruth Miller, a member of the Dena'ina tribe and Climate Justice Co-Director for Native Movement, conducting a salmon ceremony. She is sitting on the shores of the lake making an offering of thanks, using the bones from last year’s salmon.
Ruth Miller, a member of the Dena’ina tribe and Climate Justice Co-Director for Native Movement, conducting a salmon ceremony. She is making an offering of thanks, using the bones from last year’s salmon. CREDIT: National Geographic/Ben Wallis.

That connection extends to the indigenous people who both visit these places and have lived there for thousands of years. In Lake Clark National Park, Ruth Miller, a member of the Dena’ina tribe and Climate Justice co-director for the Native Movement, performs a salmon ceremony. Miller offers the bones of the previous year’s salmon to help the fish recognize their pathway home. “To live sustainably means practicing gratitude and giving more than you take,” she said.

To sustain the bounty of our National Parks for the future, its visitors will need to embrace this same level of gratitude.

America’s National Parks airs on National Geographic on June 5 at 9/8c. All episodes will be available to stream on Disney+ June 7.