Our Great National Parks docuseries promotional poster
Our Great National Parks docuseries promotional poster

Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma has jour­neyed far in life, as well as on land and water.

He trav­els well.

Our Great National Parks with Barack Obama
Our Great Nation­al Parks
Release Year: 2022
Run­ning Time: 50–54 min­utes per episode; 5 episodes in inau­gur­al sea­son
Watch it

The path to his pres­i­den­cy fea­tured a ring­ing speech at the Bran­den­burg Gate in Berlin, crowds show­ing up on a vis­it to his father’s fam­i­ly in Kenya, and a three-point shot that swished into a bas­ket net before cheer­ing Amer­i­can troops in Afghanistan.

Oba­ma has now embarked on a jour­ney through the nat­ur­al won­ders of our shared birthright.

The 44th pres­i­dent is tak­ing view­ers on a visu­al, edu­ca­tion­al tour of great nation­al parks, as the first pro­duc­tion in his deal with Netflix.

The five-part series fea­tures parks in Kenya and Indone­sia, as if to mock years of attacks on Obama’s ori­gins and child­hood from wacko birds of the right.

Oba­ma strolls bare­foot on beach­es, but his main con­tri­bu­tion is his gift of the spo­ken word.

Birds are a big part of the series, par­tic­u­lar­ly when it pic­tures the Mon­terey Bay Nation­al Marine Sanc­tu­ary along the cen­tral coast of Cal­i­for­nia. So are hip­pos ven­tur­ing into the surf off the west coast of Africa, orang­utans in the jun­gles of Bor­neo, killer whales attack­ing a gray whale calf, and pumas hunt­ing against a back­drop of Chile’s Tor­res de Paine Nation­al Park in the peaks of Patagonia.

The five-part Net­flix series is instruc­tion­al. Black rhi­nos are not Repub­li­cans in Name Only, but a species reduced in the 1970s and 1980s by poach­ers to the point where just 10 were left in Kenya’s Tsa­vo Nation­al Park.

The pop­u­la­tion has been brought back to one hun­dred, a half-dozen of whom are filmed at night at a water­ing hole.

Ele­phants’ sense of smell directs where they can dig for water in a dried-up riv­er bed. They are the boss of Africa’s steppes, with even lions show­ing respect.

Ele­phant seals sim­i­lar­ly rule ocean beach­es, with grunt­ing con­fronta­tions of dom­i­nant males. Water buf­fa­lo, in tem­pera­ment, sur­pass the ornery hos­til­i­ty of Sen­a­tor Ted Cruz.

The nar­ra­tors of tele­vi­sion nature series tend to speak with a hushed solem­ni­ty of Pas­sion Gospel read­ing or announc­ing the Mas­ters golf tour­na­ment. Not so Oba­ma. The man’s wry wit infus­es his commentary.

Hip­pos ven­tur­ing into the surf are “hang­ing ten.” A bug-infect­ed sloth in the jun­gle is a “phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal fac­to­ry” of ingre­di­ents for dis­ease-cur­ing medications.

The series deliv­ers, but does not dwell on, threats to the life of nat­ur­al sys­tems. Oba­ma keeps its mes­sage direct and sim­ple. “Vote like the plan­et depends on it,” he says. “Will we allow some­thing so pre­cious to dis­ap­pear for­ev­er?” he asks.

We’ve wit­nessed debates, in the North­west, about the size of parks and wilder­ness areas. The tim­ber, min­ing and petro­le­um indus­tries have read­i­ly agreed to pro­tect every glac­i­er out there. They balk at rain for­est val­leys or coastal plains that are calv­ing grounds for Arc­tic caribou.

The Oba­ma series pic­tures the dan­gers sur­round­ing parks, from pop­u­la­tion incur­sion to bull­doz­ing Borneo’s jun­gles to plant life­less palm oil plan­ta­tions. Again, how­ev­er, the touch is light and sen­si­ble. “The larg­er the park, the more ani­mals will call it home,” Oba­ma tells viewers.

The 44th pres­i­dent walked his talk in office.

Just before leav­ing office, Oba­ma des­ig­nat­ed a 1.3‑million- acre Bears Ears Nation­al Mon­u­ment to pro­tect peaks, mesas and native pet­ro­glyphs in South­ern Utah. Trump slashed it to 213,000 acres, but the mon­u­ment has been restored by Pres­i­dent Biden. Oba­ma expand­ed a marine sanc­tu­ary off Mid­way Island in the Pacif­ic, and cre­at­ed the first such sanc­tu­ary in the Atlantic.

Joe Biden with Barack Obama
Pres­i­dent Oba­ma with then-Vice Pres­i­dent Biden (Source: Daniel Schwen, repro­duced under Cre­ative Commons)

The nation­al park series is a jour­ney through nat­ur­al won­ders of our shared birthright. Oba­ma often returns to a theme: The inter­ests of humankind are served by pro­tect­ing and nur­tur­ing these lands (and waters).

“They are our life sup­port,” Oba­ma argues, talk­ing of ben­e­fits that go far beyond boost­ing eco-tourism.

Seem­ing­ly not a week goes by with­out an alarm­ing report on buildup of car­bon diox­ide in the atmos­phere, the expand­ing fire sea­son in our drought-strick­en West, or release of methane from melt­ing permafrost.

Oba­ma acknowl­edges the mul­ti­ple mount­ing dan­gers, but the man still believes in a word cen­tral to his 2008 cam­paign: Hope moves him.

“As long as we make the right choic­es, we can heal it, too,” he concludes.

But the Net­flix series also under­scores a mes­sage from Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr., often quot­ed by Pres­i­dent Oba­ma: the urgency of now.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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