Outdoor Retailer Winter Market '09: Industry breakfast offers sneak peek at NPS film

Ken Burns typically speaks softly. But during his keynote speech at this year's Outdoor Retailer Winter Market Industry Breakfast held Jan. 22, the filmmaker's voice rose and his words were quick as he described with great passion attending President Obama's inauguration.
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Ken Burns typically speaks softly. But during his keynote speech at this year's Outdoor Retailer Winter Market Industry Breakfast held Jan. 22, the filmmaker's voice rose and his words were quick as he described with great passion attending President Obama's inauguration.

The election of the first African-American president made a great impression on Burns, who has spent much of his life examining what it means to be an American. While race has been a central issue in many of his award-winning documentaries such as "The Civil War" and "Baseball," his latest project focuses on another aspect of American life -- our relationship with nature.

Scheduled to run on PBS in September, Burns' new film, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," explores how the preservation of wild lands and the establishment of National Parks have been very democratic, very American, ideas. "We developed a relationship with nature unlike any other country," Burns told the breakfast attendees. "When we realized that some of these places were disappearing, we did something that had never been done in history. We set aside land -- not for kings -- but for all the people. You and I own the grandest canyon on Earth, and the only deal is that you and I have to take care of it."

After speaking, Burns showed about 15 minutes of the film, which featured not only stunning footage from various National Parks, but also interviews with historians and park rangers.

Burns emphasized that the film is as much about people as it is about nature. "The story of the National Parks is the story of people dedicated to protecting some portion of the land they loved," said Burns. Subjects of the film include the famed Buffalo Soldiers, who were the first caretakers of Yosemite National Park, as well as individuals like George Melendez Wright who, in the 1930s, encouraged the National Park Service to establish a wildlife survey office and study the Parks' animal and plant species.

He also said that this film marks the beginning of "what could be an incredibly dramatic partnership" between the outdoor industry and PBS. The network and the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) are developing a retail promotional program around the film that will include online resources and promotional materials for retailers. Burns encouraged outdoor companies to partner with their local PBS stations, which, according to Burns, would be eager to work with businesses to promote the film. (For more information, download "The National Parks" Retail Toolkit at www.outdoorindustry.org.)

Burns told the audience that this film would be promoted unlike any of his previous projects, with much of the programming focusing on underserved schools and communities. One goal is to convey to people in these communities that they too own some of the most beautiful land in the world.

Prior to the speech and presentation by Burns, Mike Wallenfels, president of Mountain Hardwear and chairman of the OIA board of directors, said that OIA has developed new retail training and education programming to help shops operate in these tough economic times. These include the Outdoor Specialty Retail Survive or Thrive Assessment Tool, web-based training programs, trade show seminars, in-store training by The Mann Group, and the new Outdoor Specialty Retail Financial Performance Report.

Wallenfels also got a good laugh from the crowd when he shared that experts say four market sectors should do well during the recession: outdoor gear, soups, alcohol and guns.

--Marcus Woolf

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