Remembering John Muir on the centennial of the National Park Service

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tags: National Park Service, John Muir



Mark Stoll is Professor of History and Director of Environmental Studies at Texas Tech University. He is the author of Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism. This post originally appeared on the OUPblog.

This year, Americans celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service. On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act. The bill culminated decades of effort by a remarkable generation of dedicated men and women who fought to protect the nation’s natural wonders for the democratic enjoyment of the people.

The greatest of these passionate parks advocates was John Muir, “Father of the National Parks.” Muir was a naturalist and activist who wrote over 300 articles and a dozen books. In these works, he sang the praises of parks and other special natural places and called for their protection from commercial exploitation. His words still speak to us as the National Parks system enters its second century and remind us of his spirit and his principles.

Earlier this summer, my son and I backpacked for five days in Yosemite National Park. No place is more closely linked to Muir than Yosemite Valley. Overwhelmed by its beauty on his first visit in 1868, he lived in the valley for 11 years, beginning in 1869. In these years, he gained national recognition as a naturalist and nature writer. In 1880, he married, became a fruit-grower in Martinez, raised a family—and stopped writing.

At this point in his life, Muir had done little to earn the title “Father of the National Parks.” In 1864, four years before he ever saw it, Yosemite Valley was given by Congress to California as a park. Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, was established in far-off Wyoming in 1872, when Muir was still relatively unknown.

Muir’s career took a dramatic turn in 1889, when Robert Underwood Johnson arrived in California. Johnson was the crusading editor of Century magazine and he was looking for West Coast authors. In particular, he wanted to get Muir writing again. The two men went camping in the Sierra. Disturbed by overgrazed mountain meadows and abused forests, they planned a campaign for an enlarged federal park in Yosemite. Muir wrote the articles describing the proposed park that Johnson published in Century, while Johnson pulled strings in Washington. Simultaneously, other advocates were promoting a park to protect the Sierra’s ancient sequoia trees. In 1890, the two campaigns achieved the first major expansions of the parks with the creation of Sequoia National Park and Yosemite National Park.

Johnson urged Muir to form an association to protect the new parks from destructive commercial interests. Muir co-founded the Sierra Club in 1892, which remains one of the nation’s oldest and most influential environmental organizations. Johnson further encouraged Muir to write books to swell public appreciation for the parks. Muir set to work writing The Mountains of California (1894), Our National Parks (1901), and The Yosemite (1912). They did not simply extol the nation’s parks. More importantly, these books called for better parks management and for protection for the nation’s other natural wonders. ...





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