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Thousands Gather in Santa Monica Mountains for 12-Hour Movie about the National Parks

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"We're not a travelogue, we're not a nature fim, we're not a recomendation on which lodge to stay in. It's the story how this place got started," a zealous Ken Burns said of his upcoming twelve hour documentary on the National Parks. He and his crew have spent what many dream about: six years of traveling the country from National Park to National Park exploring some of the country's most beautiful and historically and culturally significant places.

"We've been curious how our country ticks and for 30 years we made films trying to figure out who these strange and complicated people are who like to call themselves Americans," explained Burns, whose film repertoire includes documentaries on the Civil War, Baseball, Jazz and most recently, World War II. "One of the ways we reveal ourselves is in relationship to the land... There's nothing that reveals more of us than this best of all ideas that was to set aside land not just for rich folks but everybody and for all time. That's what National Parks are."

A few weeks ago in the Santa Monica Mountains, over 2,000 members of KCET gathered for a one-hour preview screening of Burns' film at Paramount Ranch, one of the many National Park areas within minutes of Los Angeles. In fact, from the popular Runyon Canyon in Hollywood running along the mountain range to the ocean, the land all part of one of the most progressively and collaboratively managed park areas in the nation. Designated in 1978 by congress as the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, the 153,000 acres of land is comprised of National Park Service, state, local and private land (for more background, read LAist's intro the area).

"Each unit tells a story of our heritage of the nation and tries to answer the question what does it mean to be an American," Woody Smeck, Superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, said in opening remarks before the movie. At Paramount Ranch, that heritage is the history of filmmaking.

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Perhaps the man who knows California the best, TV show host and non-stop explorer of California Huell Howser, was astonished at Paramount Ranch's existence. "I've lived in Southern California for almost 30 years and I've never been here, this is the first time I've ever been here," he explained to a group of fans asking for his autograph. "It just points out how so many times things are right in our own backyard and we don't know about them, don't visit them, don't even know they exist. So this is a learning experience for me as well."

Burns hopes his film helps create a bridge to get people interested in the parks, whether they are the newer models such as Santa Monica Mountains or the traditional ones like Sequoia and Kings Canyon, a four hour drive north of Los Angeles.

"We live virtual lives now. We spend all of our time with our iPhones, and our Blackberries, and our cellphones and we're online, and we're Twittering and we're on Facebook," Burns said addressing the plight of park visitorship. "We don't have real experiences. We talk about things, but we don't actually do... These places can provide you with real experiences and it's not corny."

Howser agrees. "I think we're probably like everybody--we take where we live for granted, we always want to go to some other far away remote exotic place and we don't realize that it's right here in our own backyard and here for all of us to enjoy everyday. I don't think you have to go very far from home in California to find a beautiful park that you can take advantage of. That's the beauty of our park system is that it's all around us."

Burns' film, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, will air on KCET next Fall. By the way, we asked, Burns does not use Twitter.