Printer-friendly version Share:  Share this page on FacebookShare this page on TwitterShare this page by emailShare this page with other services

John Muir's Public Service

by William O. Douglas

[Excerpted from Muir of the Mountains, by William O. Douglas. Abridged edition. 1994. Copyrighted by 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 irrigation.

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 rights.

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 no part of Kings Canyon National Park.

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 God himself."

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 national park.

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.

Sierra Club® and "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet"® are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club. © 2024 Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club Seal is a registered copyright, service mark, and trademark of the Sierra Club.