John Muir's Public Service
by William O. Douglas
Muir of the Mountains,
by William O. Douglas.
Sierra Club Books
, San Francisco.
Reprinted by permission of Sierra Club Books.]
John Muir never held public office, but his public service was of a
high order. As early as 1870 he realized that preservation of the American
wilderness was necessary for all the people.
First was the need for forests and alpine meadows to ensure a water
supply. Without the forests to protect the slopes from quick runoffs and to
store the water underground, and without the high meadows to act as
reservoirs, the lowlands would become deserts in some parts of the country.
That was particularly true of the west, where farmers were dependent on
Second was the need for forests and high meadows for recreation and
pleasure. Over and over again Muir said, "Everybody needs beauty as well as
bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and
give strength to body and soul alike."
Muir knew people's hunger for the wilderness. He would come back
from his hikes out of San Francisco with his arms full of flowers, and the
children, who had only streets for playground, would beg him for some.
Muir had also seen people in dark apartments in San Francisco
cultivating flowers and other plants in tin cans, buckets, and dishes. They
were, Muir said, "humble plant friends" of these poor people.
Muir knew from his own experiences that life in the woods was
healthy. He knew that living in the woods made some sick people well. He
knew that it was good for men and women to escape the noise and smoke and
dirt of the cities and get into the great cathedrals of the mountains.
Muir had also seen with his own eyes the result of overgrazing by
sheep and cattle. In the early 1870s he estimated that the grass and
seedling trees of nine-tenths of the Sierra had been eaten down so close as
to make the whole range look like the inside of a dusty corral. He saw
trees being cut everywhere in wholesale fashion. The forests were being
destroyed. The dynamiting of the Big Trees caused losses so great that only
about a third of each tree was saved for timber. He saw forests burning
with no one to control the fires. He saw the result of these practices in
the valleys as well as in the mountains. The streams were now dark with mud
and silt. The rain and snow water, no longer held in the mountains by roots
of grass and plants, was running off the slopes and washing countless tons
of dirt down into the rivers.
He saw that the property rights in the waters of the rivers and
lakes of the mountains had been acquired by private operators,
speculators,and corporations who were using all the water for themselves or
selling it at very high prices. Many farmers who could not afford to pay
high prices for water left their farms or sold them to the big operators.
Those who had not been starved out began to organize groups to defend their
The waters of lakes and streams,the forests on high ridges, the
woods in deep valleys, alpine meadows, grass, flowers, shrubs - these
belonged to all the people, not to a select group. If the earth was not to
be ruined for the benefit of the few, the people must be organized. So Muir
decided to dedicate the rest of his life to that end. He became the
spokesman of the people. His aim was to protect some sections of the
forests in parks or preserves where no cutting could ever take place. In
1864 Congress had passed an act that President Lincoln approved, granting
some of the Yosemite to California for a state park. A large gorge was
included and valley land that was fifteen miles long and two miles wide.
Four sections of groves of the Big Sequoia were also transferred to
California. In 1872 Congress created Yellowstone National Park. But Muir
was convinced more parks were needed.
Muir also wanted to restrict or control grazing by sheep and cattle
so that the high ridges and meadows would not, as a consequence of
overgrazing, be eroded by rain. He decided to educate the people of America
on the values of the great wilderness areas in California and in other
states and to arouse them to action.
By 1889 Muir had put all other work behind him and gave most of his
time to the cause of conservation.
Robert Underwood Johnson, an editor of Century magazine from the
East, went with Muir into the Sierra and saw the havoc and ruin in the
forests. The two men believed that California alone could not properly
protect this wonderful land from destructive logging and uncontrolled
grazing. They decided to work together to make Yosemite a national park and
keep all grazing and lumbering operations out of it for all time. They got
the bill introduced in Congress but it failed to pass that year.
Muir wrote articles for Johnson's magazine and for newspapers.
These articles whipped up public sentiment for conservation. And on October
1, 1890, Yosemite National Park was created by a bill signed by President
Harrison. A cavalry patrol from the United States Army was sent to the area
to guard the new park property.
At about the same time, two additional national parks were created
in California to save the sequoia trees. One was Sequoia National Park and
the other was General Grant National Park, which is now part of Kings Canyon
In 1892 Muir helped organize the Sierra Club. It had as one of its
objectives the preservation of the forests and other natural features of
the Sierra Nevada. Muir was the Club's first president and held that office
until his death.
One of Muir's closest workers and advisers in the Sierra Club was
William E. Colby, who shared most of Muir's victories and defeats. "Blood,
sweat, and tears" is the way Muir and Colby won their battles to save the
forests and meadows. Through the Sierra Club, conservationists presented a
united front. The club, with Muir, was responsible for getting forest lands
set aside either as national forests or as national parks.
The sentiment that Muir and the Sierra club had created for saving
public lands was now having great effect. By 1893 the federal government
had set aside 13 million more acres as forest reserves, and while it did
not yet have an organized staff to keep all the trespassing sheepherders
and lumbermen out, much of the public lands were saved from destruction.
A commission of six men was appointed by the government to survey
other parts of the country to see if there were more forests that should be
saved from destruction. Muir worked with the commission and helped them
make their survey. They found the Black Hills in South Dakota being ruined.
Portions of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming had been reduced to a forest
of stumps. In Idaho and Montana they found misuse of forest lands. They
found the same conditions in Oregon and Washington. They found other areas
in California that were being ruined by sheep and by lumber operations.
The commission made its report in 1897, recommending two new
national parks - Grand Canyon and Mount Rainier - and urging that thirteen
national forests be created in eight western states. President Cleveland
set aside the lands for the thirteen national forests.
This action by Cleveland made the lumber, sheep, cattle, and mining
industries furious. Their lobbyists moved into Washington, D.C., and
Congress was persuaded to suspend Cleveland's order. The Department of the
Interior opened the forest reserves to private claims. Hundreds of private
claims were filed.
Muir wrote in reply: "Even in Congress a sizable chunk of gold,
carefully concealed, will outtalk and outfight all the nation on a subject
like forestry, well smothered in ignorance, and in which the money
interests of only a few are conspicuously involved. Under these
circumstances, the bawling, blethering oratorical stuff drowns the voice of
Muir went on to plead with the people, whose votes ultimately
count, to save their inheritance of the forests from destruction. He ended
one stirring article with these words: "Any fool can destroy trees. They
cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed - chased
and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark
hides. Branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones. Few that fell trees
plant them; nor would planting avail much towards getting back anything
like the noble primeval forests. It took more than three thousand years to
make some of the trees in these Western woods - trees that are still
standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty
forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries God
has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches,
and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save
them from fools - only Uncle Sam can do that."
Muir wrote many other articles, and eventually the sentiment in
Congress changed. Theodore Roosevelt became President. Muir and many others
urged him to create a Bureau of Forestry to manage the forest reserves.
Roosevelt persuaded Congress to do that.
In May 1903, Roosevelt came to Yosemite to have Muir show him the
valley and its forests. They camped one night under the big Trees; they
rode horses high above the Yosemite floor and camped out two more nights.
>From Glacier Point Muir pointed out the great peaks and valleys to
Roosevelt and told him how important these forests and water resources were
to all the people. Muir told Roosevelt about "the timber thieves, and the
destructive work of the lumbermen, and other spoilers of the forests." Muir
convinced Roosevelt that vigorous action was necessary if these natural
resources all over America were to be saved for all the people.
Roosevelt described this trip with Muir in glowing terms: "Lying
out at night under those giant sequoias was lying in a temple built by no
hand of man, a temple grander than any human architect could by any
possibility build, and I hope for the preservation of the groves of giant
trees simply because it would be a shame to our civilization to let them
disappear. They are monuments in themselves."
Not all of the Yosemite country was in the national park that had
been created in 1890. The State of California still owned Yosemite Valley
itself. In 1904 Muir helped a campaign get under way to have California
cede back to the United States this important land that Congress had
granted California in 1864. After a great struggle, the bill was passed by
the California legislature. But the question remained whether Congress
would accept the gift. Lumber interests moved into Washington, D.C., saying
they wanted the sugar pine trees for cutting. Other private interests
wanted part of the land for water reservoirs, grazing, and other purposes.
Muir and the Sierra Club worked hard to get the bill through Congress. At
last they succeeded, and in 1906 Yosemite Valley became part of the
A demand arose to turn a portion of the park into a water reservoir
for San Francisco. This was known as the Hetch Hetchy project, from the
name of the valley. Muir and the Sierra Club opposed this move. There were
other water supplies available outside the park. After President Roosevelt
had visited Yosemite with Muir, he encouraged Muir in trying to save Hetch
Hetchy. Muir threw himself into the fight. He wrote: "A great political
miracle, this of 'improving' the beauty of the most beautiful of all
mountain parks by cutting down its groves, and burying all the thickets of
azalea and wild rose, lily gardens, and ferneries two or three hundred feet
deep. After this is done we are promised a road blasted on the slope of the
north wall, where nature-lovers may sit on rustic stools, or rocks, like
frogs on logs, to admire the sham dam lake, the grave of Hetch Hetchy. This
Yosemite Park fight began a dozen years ago. Never for a moment have I
believed that the American people would fail to defend it for the welfare
of themselves and all the world. The people are now aroused. Tidings from
far and near show that almost every good man and woman is with us.
Therefore be of good cheer, watch, and pray and fight."
When Taft became President he also visited Yosemite, and he and
Muir walked the four miles from Glacier Point to the floor of the valley.
Muir convinced Taft that the beautiful Hetch Hetchy Valley should not be
turned into a reservoir.
Muir loved Hetch Hetchy. Its beauties had not yet been marred by
axe and plow, sheep and cattle. He saw other parts of the Sierra being
trampled into dust and made a desert. He wanted to save Hetch Hetchy both
from that fate and from the even more awful fate of being submerged forever
under the waters of a reservoir.
But Muir lost the fight. President Wilson, inaugurated in 1913,
named Franklin K. Lane as Secretary of the Interior. Lane was from San
Francisco and an ardent advocate of the Hetch Hetchy project. He had been
city attorney for San Francisco and had filed that city's application for
the project. So the Hetch Hetchy reservoir was later authorized by Congress
and Muir was defeated.
This defeat hastened Muir's death. He died of pneumonia in Los
Angels on Christmas Eve, 1914. Only some two years after his death was a
law enacted that placed all the national parks under one director who was
empowered to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and
the wild life" in the parks. This had been one of Muir's projects, and the
men who took charge of the parks in 1916 carried out Muir's ideas. So in a
true sense Muir was the father of our national parks.
Muir wrote near the end of his life: "In the beginning of my
studies I never intended to write a word for the press. In my life of
lonely wanderings I was pushed and pulled, on and on, through everything,
by unwavering never-ending love of God's earth plans and works, and
eternal, immortal, all-embracing Beauty."
Muir loved the trees that stood as sentinels on the edges of alpine
basins, the Douglas squirrel and the water ouzel, the waterfalls, the clear
rushing creeks, the sapphire lakes lying above glacier moraines, the
thickly matted meadows where roots of grass and plants hold water back and
fashion reservoirs in the mountains better than any that people can build.
A person in pursuit of gain can be a destructive force. A person in pursuit
of beauty will find cathedrals in the woods and mountain gorges where his
or her heart will be filled with wonder.
Knowing of people's love of beauty and their great need for it,
Muir gave his life to help them discover beauty in the earth around them
and to arouse their desire to protect it. The machine, Muir know, could
easily level the woods and make the land desolate. Humankind's mission on
earth is not to destroy: it is to protect and conserve all living things.
There is a place for trees and flowers and birds, as well as for people.
Never should we try to crowd them out of the universe.
Humankind is but one form of life on this planet. We must learn to
cherish and protect all other forms. They lift our hearts and are
indispensable to our welfare. These are the messages John Muir carried to
the American people. Though he lost some battles, Muir, more than any other
person, made conservation a powerful, positive force in our national life.
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