California without Yosemite is a terrifying thought. But the famed park that welcomes more than 4 million visitors each year could have been developed and felled in the 19th century, were it not for a government land grant issued in 1864.
“Yosemite was the birth of the park idea,” says David Vassar, writer, director and co-producer of “California Forever.” The two-part documentary about the history and future of the state’s parks airs on KQED Wednesday night.
“It was the first time that any national government, in history, set aside a tract of land to protect scenic beauty,” says Vassar, an Emmy winner with a long history making films about parks.
Even Great Britain , known for its dedication to preservation and historic sites, didn’t create a national park until 1951, nearly 100 years later.
With more than 81 million visitors per year across 278 parks, California state parks remain popular, but their birth was a revolutionary concept.
The first part of “California Forever” details the history of California’s parks, which set the precedent for state and national parks worldwide, beginning with Yosemite .
Master planner Frederick Law Olmsted, a Civil War sanitary engineer (i.e., he had to arrange for mass body disposal), who played a key role establishing Yosemite, is profiled in the film.
“Olmsted had an exceptional perspective on the horror of the Civil War,” says Vassar. “In his plan for Yosemite, he talks at length about the restorative value of recreation and the importance of it to the spirit.”
When Vassar began “California Forever,” he did not predict how timely the documentary would be, given recent park closures and funding controversies surrounding former California State Park director Ruth Coleman – under whose direction a $54-million surplus went unused in an off-road recreation fund.
The film’s second part, about the future of state parks, opens by addressing differences between nature lovers and off-roaders at Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area, which borders Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
“Off-roading is popular,” says Vassar. “If they don’t have a place, there would be open riding everywhere and it would be a disaster. There are few outdoor activities that don’t have an industrial consequence. There has to be some compromise.”
Episode 2 also highlights western snowy plover and elephant seal protection, “re-wilding” efforts to return Los Angeles River to a natural state, missions, Angel Island’s controversial history, and Allensworth State Historic Park , a former utopian agrarian community for freed slaves founded in 1908.
Vassar’s goal is both to inform and generate awareness and appreciation for state parks.
“I think people have an assumption that state parks are sort of sacred territory,” he says. “They think they’ll be protected forever, they’re a birthright and nothing will ever change, but it’s all politics and it’s all mutable so if people lose their relationship with parks and forget why they’re important, they’ll disappear.”
IF YOU WATCH
When: 9 and 10 p.m. Wednesday
When: KQED Channel 9