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Southern Oregon's 'Best Idea'

Tonight's public-television debut of a landmark documentary coincides with a renewed effort to promote not only visits but volunteering at Oregon's only national park.

After a year of special events in Crater Lake National Park, the nonprofit trust that benefits the park has hired a full-time volunteer and outreach coordinator. Maria Clementi, formerly of the Grand Canyon Trust, is coming to work in Southern Oregon just as awareness of the park is likely to reach a new high, says Jeff Allen, executive director of Crater Lake National Park Trust.

"It's never been just the government's job," Allen says. "Parks depend on people who love to get involved.

"I think the series will kind of bring that out."

Ken Burns' film, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," details the devotion of more than 40 champions of America's national parks — people most Americans have never heard of. Among these is William Gladstone Steel, who lobbied tirelessly for 17 years to gain protection and preservation for Crater Lake, founded as the country's sixth national park.

"He knocked on doors, sent out mailers," says Crater Lake park ranger Eric Andersen. "He went to the halls of Congress because he understood the mechanism of government."

Episode two in the 12-hour, six-part series describes Steel's passion for Crater Lake, nourished by a conservation movement led by more familiar figures such as the Sierra Club's John Muir. Episode four sees parks enthusiasts Margaret and Edward Gehrke embark on an ambitious, 7,000-mile journey during the automobile's advent. They visit Crater Lake, Mount Rainier and parks across the country.

"Crater Lake does have a pretty prominent mention," Allen says.

Founded as a national park in 1902, Crater Lake's history goes back more than 7,700 years to the explosion and collapse of Mount Mazama.

The volcano's massive caldera filled with snow and rain, creating the country's deepest lake. The seventh-deepest lake on Earth at 1,943 feet, Crater Lake is the world's clearest.

"It was one of the very first places people say, 'This we've got to protect,' " Allen says.

New footage of the lake for "The National Parks" shows it in early morning and evening splendor. Cinematographer Buddy Squires filmed the lake in summer 2007, says Andersen, who helped arrange access there and two years earlier in Hawaii, where the ranger worked for 20 years.

"The film is not going to be what people expect, I think," Andersen says.

Audiences this summer saw several minutes of "The National Parks" played in Crater Lake's Steel Visitor Center as a promotion. Although the series mounts breathtaking scenery of 53 of the 58 parks, its story line relies on the equally inspiring human angle behind America's most beautiful landscapes.

"It is incredibly relevant," says Andersen.

Burns' interviews with PBS reassure audiences that they don't already know the story. Burns and his crew didn't. On location, rangers often mentioned some tale of which producers were unaware that ultimately made the script.

"There's a lot of hope in the parks community that this is going to reignite people's passion," Allen says.

Overall visits to national parks have declined for the past decade, Allen says. Five years ago, Crater Lake was forced to cut staff and programs and delay maintenance during a period of declining budgets within the park system. National parks on average operate with two-thirds of the funds they need, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.

"The struggles for national parks continue today," Andersen says. "Even this old park ... requires vigilance."

In response to that struggle, the Crater Lake National Park Trust formed as an independent nonprofit group in 2007 to promote the park. Originally a committee of the National Park Foundation, the trust organized for Crater Lake's centennial in 2002. The trust operates on about $350,000 per year, provided by many small donations from private individuals, foundation grants and proceeds from the state's Crater Lake license plate, managed in an endowment.

This year's $160,000 grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust of Vancouver, Wash., essentially doubled the trust's staff with Clementi's hire. The Ashland resident is tasked with expanding the national park trust's volunteer program and organizing events in and around the park, Allen says.

Trust volunteers co-hosted a family day in the park Saturday and star-gazing parties and yoga retreats last month. A sold-out winemaker dinner is planned at Crater Lake Lodge next week. These and other new events benefit the trust but mainly serve to bring more people to the park more often, Allen says.

"That's one of the ways we hope people will be inspired by this film."

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

MT file photo Audiences this summer saw several minutes of “The National Parks: America's Best Idea” played in Crater Lake's Steel Visitor Center as a promotion. Crater Lake National Park's history is featured in Monday night's installment of “The National Parks: America's Best Idea.” - File photo