'The National Parks': See the film, volunteer and get in free

Ken Burns did it for the Civil War, baseball and jazz. And many are betting his latest project will heighten the profile of the national parks, too.

Even before the filmmaker's The National Parks: America's Best Idea hits the airwaves on Sept. 27, the 12-hour series is generating buzz, thanks to heavy promotion and its tie-in with several high-profile events.

On Sept. 26, National Public Lands Day, a number of national parks will screen previews of Burns' film. Admission to all 391 national parks and public lands overseen by seven other federal agencies is free that day. And visitors who participate in volunteer projects will receive a voucher for admission to the park of their choice, valid for a year.

In Washington, the day will end with a celebration on the Ellipse, where another screening will take place.

Series highlights also will be shown in New York's Central Park on Wednesday, with a free concert featuring performances by Counting Crows, Alison Krauss, Carole King and others. The show is the centerpiece of National Parks Week NYC beginning Saturday. And on Monday, a commission will issue recommendations in Washington on the future of the parks.

"There's such a love affair with our national parks, but they're profoundly threatened," says Tom Kiernan, president of the non-profit National Parks Conservation Association, a co-sponsor of the New York events. "The Ken Burns film speaks to the history of the parks. And the commission's report speaks to the future of the parks."

The national parks, which get more than 275 million visitors annually, have been chronically underfunded, with a yearly budget shortfall of $600 million, Kiernan says.

National Public Lands Day, now in its 16th year, solicits volunteers to work on projects ranging from clearing trails to planting trees. For a state-by-state listing of the day's events and volunteer opportunities: nps.gov/september26/ or publiclandsday.org. For details on National Parks Week NYC: feelfree.org.