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John Muir, the Sierra, Yosemite National Park & the Sierra Club

by Bonnie J. Gisel, Ph.D., Curator, LeConte Memorial Lodge

A speech presented on the Occasion of the Sierra Club Resilient Habitats Campaign Retreat
March 26 - 29, 2012, Clair Tappaan Lodge

In July 1875, John Muir, age 37, had been in California nearly 7 ½ years. He had come to study botany, undertook a significant study of the geological formation of Yosemite Valley, and discovered that through glaciation, the Valley had been formed. He further studied the living glaciers in the High Sierra near Yosemite Valley; and, Muir's findings, executed along with drawings were published in The Overland Monthly as "Studies in the Sierra" beginning in May 1874.

By now, Muir's empirical studies of the glaciation of Yosemite had thrown a monkey wrench into the findings of Josiah Whitney, Harvard professor and director of the California Geological Survey—who professed that Yosemite had been formed by a cataclysmic collapse of the Valley floor. While Whitney took an extreme disliking toward Muir, calling him "that sheep herding ignoramus," Muir befriended some of California's finest: Joseph LeConte, professor of Geology at the University of California and Galen Clark, the Guardian of Yosemite, as well as Albert Kellogg, founding fellow of the California Academy of Science. And, of course, he had become an even closer friend to Jeanne Carr and her husband, Ezra. Jeanne--served as mentor to Muir, a relationship that began when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin. Muir would also count among his friends, the Harvard botanist Asa Gray; Sir Joseph Hooker, Kew Gardens, London; and Ralph Waldo Emerson—who visited Muir in Yosemite in 1871. By 1875, Muir had also been introduced to Louie Wanda Strentzel by Jeanne Carr. John and Louie would marry in 1880 and settle in the Alhambra Valley, near Martinez, California on the ranch of Louie's father, John Strentzel.

Then too, Muir--beyond science--was destined in some inexplicable way to search for answers to unsolved questions that lay before him. He seemed to function in an other-worldliness or rather, inner-worldly way that reached beyond common definition or classification. In appearance to family and friends, he engendered "a spiritual insight into Nature's lore granted only to those who love and woo her in her great outdoor palaces." He was a man engaged in process, on a mission to discover himself and who he was in relation to the natural world and to stretch himself to fit the larger universe. "Doomed," he wrote, "to be carried by the spirit into the wilderness."

Muir traveled in the southern Sierra in 1873 with Albert Kellogg, in July 1875, he returned. Much of the timberland in the Sierra and fertile farming land in the valleys were already held in private ownership. As well, railroad grants crossed the Central Valley, invading the foothills and mountains; and water sources in the High Sierra and natural reservoirs had been preempted by speculators, mill companies, and public utility corporations. Farmers were forced to pay for water, many were starved out. Those who remained organized into local Grange groups, essentially farm unions, to fight for their rights—the Carr's and Strentzel's were both founders and active members of local granges.

In July 1875, Muir entered the Kings River Valley on the South Fork, an area that had been invaded by land grabbers. There nailed to a pine tree, he found a sign:
We the undersigned claim this valley for the purpose of raising stock."
An appeal by Muir to all nature-lovers followed. Published in the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin [August 13, 1875], he concluded: "After meeting woodsmen who had felled a giant sequoia, and seeing a sign posted claiming all the valley for stock raising…it appears that the beauty of this remote [region] is doomed to perish…[while] tame law-loving citizens plant and water their garden daisies without concern wholly unconscious of loss." "This new Kings River Yosemite is already beginning to attract tourists from all parts of the world," he wrote. "Those who can should visit the valley at once, while it remains in primeval order. Some twenty-five years ago the Tuolumne Yosemite was made into a hog pasture, and later into a sheep pasture. The Merced Yosemite has had all its wild gardens trampled by cows and horses."

Muir again returned to the southern Sierra in September 1875 with his mule "Brownie." Of his autumn journey, his journal is devoted to connecting with the music of nature, its healing qualities, its robust flowery meadows and glistening streams, the woodpeckers, hummingbirds, squirrels, the spiritual eye that sees not only rivers of water but of air, the crystals of the rock in sympathetic motion. The journey birthed the mantel that engaged Muir is more than conversation as record keeper of Nature's beauty and as scientific envoy. He turned to advocate for the protection of wilderness and in so doing the wildness of which he often wrote and spoke. Here was the repast, the feast where upon all of whom he had become was placed before him and the voice was served to write on behalf of the justice for those among us who cannot speak for themselves. It was the final spoke in his resolve to lead humanity to a right-relationship with the natural world that it be cherished in perpetuity for their lives and for future generations of all creatures and all creation. Muir had written the previous year in a letter to Jeanne Carr that he cared "to live only to entice people to look at Nature's loveliness." The mountains and forest bouquets that resounded and resided in his soul, asked that he write to preserve them. "Who is conscious of the pine-tree multitudes in the free woods, though open to everybody? Who publishes the sheet-music of winds, or the written music of water written in river-lines? Who reports the works and ways of the clouds….And what record is kept of Nature's colors—the clothes she wears—of her birds, her beasts? He wrote.

Arriving on the Kings-Kaweah Divide south of the Kings River, in that September of 1875, Muir heard Hyde's sawmill "booming and moaning like a bad ghost" destroying many a fine tree—two million feet of lumber [that] year. [Having run for three years.] Up on the mountainside the lordly Sequoia were being felled, dragged to a chute, and sent hurling down to the mill, where the largest were "blasted into manageable dimensions for the saws." And, he wrote, "as the timber is [brittle], by this blasting, and careless felling on uneven ground, half or three-fourths of the timber was wasted." There were other mills in the vicinity soon to begin what Muir called their "sore, sad center of destruction."

Muir camped in the grove he named "the Giant Forest." [Located in Sequoia National Park.] Late into the night he sauntered "through the deep shadowy aisles, wholly dissolved in the strange beauty, as if newly arrived from another world." "Wildness is a necessity,'' he wrote. "Mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life." "Brought into a right relationship with the wilderness," [we will, he said] "see that [we] are not a separate entity endowed with a divine right to subdue fellow creatures and destroy the common heritage, but rather [that we are] an integral part of a harmonious whole. [Our] appropriation of earth's resources beyond…personal needs…bring[s] unbalance and beget[s] ultimate loss and poverty for all."

The journey of September 1875 shaped, in February 1876, Muir's first article in public protest urging Federal control of the forests, "God's First Temples. How Shall We Preserve Our Forests-The Views of a Practical Man and a Scientific Observer." Muir could see that the forests of California were being burned and cut down and wasted like a field of unprotected grain, and once destroyed would never be wholly restored even by centuries of persistent and painstaking cultivation.

"The practical importance of the preservation of our forests," Muir stated, "is augmented by their relations to climate, soil and streams. Strip off the woods with their underbrush from the mountain flanks, and the whole State, the lowlands as well as the highlands, would gradually change into a desert. Waste and pure destruction were taking place at a terrible rate due to fire, ax, and sheep. . . .Whether our loose jointed Government is really able or willing to do anything in the matter remains to be seen."

By the end of 1881, following three consecutive trips to Alaska, in 1879, 1880, and 1881, Muir remained, almost exclusively, at home for the next six years. The first of two daughters, Annie Wanda, had been born in March 1881, [Helen, "Midge" was born in January, 1886]. Muir missed Louie and Wanda, and his sunny home and the cherry trees down the hill. As a practical horticulturalist, he converted pasturage to vineyards and orchards, concentrating on cash crops—pears, grapes, and cherries. Corresponding with immediate family, he seldom wrote to friends or colleagues. Each summer he traveled to the Sierra, remaining close to post offices and telegraph stations. Consumed with managing the Strentzel-Muir ranch, he accumulated a financial reserve for his family, at the expense of writing.

Muir's literary silence, during this period, was noticed by friends including the botanist Albert Kellogg and Jeanne Carr; and by Robert Underwood Johnson, staff associate at Scribner's Monthly, who urged him not to abandon writing altogether. In 1887 Muir edited and contributed manuscripts to Picturesque California, published the following year. In June 1889, Johnson, now associate editor of The Century Magazine, arrived in San Francisco to begin a series on the "gold rush." He planned a meeting with Muir, whom he wanted to write for The Century Magazine, as he had written for its predecessor, Scribner's Monthly. A visit to the Strentzel-Muir ranch was followed by an invitation to visit Yosemite; and from the Valley Muir arranged a pack trip into Tuolumne Meadows, where he and Johnson camped beside Soda Springs. From there they rambled. At night by a campfire they talked. Muir spoke of the mountain meadows that were gone, the pigsties and corrals that littered Yosemite Valley, and the beauty diminished to make hayfields for horses, mules, and sheep. Only a portion of Yosemite (the Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove) had been preserved as a state park by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. Under the management of the Yosemite Park Commission there was wide-spread devastation. Johnson listened. A national park around the state park, he suggested, would protect the meadows and the headwaters of the streams that flowed into the Valley. Muir, highly skeptical, knew Californians were indifferent to the destruction of natural resources; their love of unspoiled nature was, he wrote, "desperately moderate."

Johnson urged Muir to write two articles for The Century, one portraying the natural features of the region, the other outlining the boundaries for the proposed park. Published in August and September 1890, Muir's articles "Treasures of the Yosemite" and "Features of the Yosemite National Park," contributed to the success of the Yosemite campaign. They were Muir's first literary appearance in a national publication in eight years, and reached 200,000 subscribers.

Johnson would use his own influence and that of Muir's, and enlist the support of influential people in the East, to lobby Congress for passage of a bill creating Yosemite National Park—a park that would surround and protect Yosemite Valley. Before Muir's second article appeared, Johnson had succeeded in creating a large coalition favoring the park that included the Southern Pacific Railroad which ran a spur line to Raymond, one of the embarking points for the Yosemite stage to Wawona. The line was not heavily traveled and the railroad had no substantial economic stake, but it has been suggested that their support was an attempt at improved public relations. In spite of a campaign that collided with local entrepreneurs and threatened to displace cattlemen, sheepherders, and lumbermen, who made free use of the land, Yosemite National Park was created in October 1890. Nearly a million acres, the Park included all the streams, creeks, and the river that flowed into Yosemite Valley, and the watersheds of the Tuolumne River, from its source downstream beyond Hetch Hetchy Valley. [by President Benjamin Harrison]

This drawing sketched by Muir during the excursion with Johnson to Tuolumne in 1889, marks the genesis of Yosemite National Park; and as well, in essence, represents the moment when ideas merged that would result in the formation of the Sierra Club. It was Johnson who suggested an association for preserving California's natural wonders. Management and protection of Yosemite National Park and concern that the Park boundaries could be shrunk, due to pressure from loggers and stockmen, set the stage for the advocacy group that would include Johnson and Muir. The defense league to be known as the Sierra Club, merged with a group from the University of California, including Joseph LeConte, William Dallam Armes [of the English Department, who would assist LeConte in the preparation of his autobiography], and Professor J. Henry Senger, a linguist, who were developing an alpine club to sponsor educational and recreational outings in the Sierra. Following an organizational meeting held in late May 1892, a formal meeting was held in San Francisco in the law office of Warren Olney on June 4th and incorporation papers were signed. Muir hoped the Sierra Club would "be able to do something for wildness and make the mountains glad." Unanimously he was chosen as the first president. Apparently Muir arrived home from the meeting jubilant, "hilarious with joy."

The purposes of the Sierra Club would be to explore, enjoy, and render accessible the mountain regions of the Pacific Coast; to publish authentic information concerning the mountain regions; and to enlist the support and cooperation of the people and government in preserving the forests and other natural features of the Sierra Nevada. By September, the Sierra Club had enlisted 182 charter members. In early 1893, the first issue of the Sierra Club Bulletin was published. The first official annual meeting was held in 1895, during which Muir spoke:
"The battle we have fought, and are still fighting, for the forests is a part of the eternal conflict between right and wrong, and we cannot expect to see the end of it. I trust, however, that our Club will not weary in this forest well-doing. The fight for the Yosemite Park and other forest parks and reserves is by no means over; nor would the fighting cease. . . . Every good thing great and small, needs defense."
Muir's words would prove prophetic.

In 1898 the Sierra Club established a permanent presence in Yosemite Valley, renting two rooms in a small cottage built by Adolf Sinning, Yosemite wood carver. The establishment of a "reading room" with photographs, an herbarium, maps, and books, enabled the Sierra Club to assist visitors and work with authorities in preserving the Park. William E. Colby's tenure as first custodian was followed by that of Galen Clark. It was Colby who created the Sierra Club High Trip—known today as "Outings." By 1900 the Club had lost nearly half of its members from a total of 800. To reestablish membership, Colby suggested that it sponsor an official annual trip into the Sierra to provide an opportunity for camaraderie among members, recruit new members, facilitate a mountain training ground for conservation activists, and be with John Muir.

The first High Trip was held in 1901, 96 people joined the event, hiking from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows. But, one, among them, Dr. Joseph LeConte, who began the journey in the Valley—would suffer a heart attack and die on July 6. LeConte Memorial Lodge was built in his memory in Curry Village, to replace the Sierra Club's "Reading Room." Dedicated in 1904, it was the first permanent visitor center in the Valley. Today, a National Historic Landmark, 120 Sierra Club members volunteer to welcome visitors, over 80 programs are presented each season, and over 16,000 visitors enjoy the Memorial's library, children's corner, and displays. Perhaps the most recognized curator of LeConte Memorial was Ansel Adams, who, at the age of 17, in 1919, joined the Sierra Club to become its caretaker from 1920 until 1923.

The battle to preserve the forests, lead to reform efforts guided by Charles S. Sargent, director of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard, who convened a delegation that included Muir and Gifford Pinchot. Endorsed by The Century as Muir and Johnson set out for Yosemite in June 1889, the newly organized Forestry Commission was intended to lead to the protection of federally owned timber. In March 1891 an amendment authorized the creation of "forest reserves" by withdrawing federal land from public domain. President Benjamin Harrison had in two years, established 15 reserves totaling nearly 13 million acres—including one of 4 million acres running along the crest of the Sierra, south of Yosemite, for two hundred miles. However, Pinchot, the first American to study forestry as a profession, believed trees could be protected as well as managed for sustained yields. Embodying the transition from amateur protection to scientific management, for Pinchot the formula was simple: the greatest good for the greatest number for the greatest duration of time. Utilitarian in breadth, the bias was toward material advantage at the cost of preserving Muir's wilderness in perpetuity. There was in Pinchot's view no value in preserving wilderness for its own sake.

Muir would address the problem in an article written for Harper's Weekly [June 5, 1897]. "Much is said on questions of this kind about ‘the greatest good for the greatest number,' but the greatest number is too often found to be number one. It is never the greatest number in the common meaning of the term that make the greatest noise and stir on questions mixed with money….Complaints are made in the name of poor settlers and miners, while the wealthy corporations are kept carefully hidden in the background." Muir believed the public utility—the benefit to American society in which the business community professed to be engaged—was merely a platform couched in domestic sentiment for concealing their own greed. In Muir's terms, every acre of the remaining federal forest land, not suitable for farming, needed permanent protection. In the Northwest, sheepmen and prospectors were burning off forest cover, regarding trees as weeds. "Let right, commendable industry be fostered," Muir stated, "but as to these Goths and Vandals of the wilderness, who are spreading black death in the fairest woods God ever made, let the government up and at ‘em."

In June 1897 Congress passed the Forest Management Act, suspending reserves for nine months pending further study and opening them to mining and grazing. With the reserves entrusted to Pinchot as special agent and with his bias toward human use, Muir and Sargent felt betrayed. Muir wrote to Sargent, "For a parallel to this in downright darkness and idiotic stupidity the records of civilization may be searched in vain." With his career advanced by Sargent who would accuse him of selling out the forests for political appointment, Pinchot urged a general policy of regulated lumbering in the reserves. "What are we to do about forest matters?" Muir wrote to Sargent in January 1898. "I have no trick to save them. I mean simply to go on hammering and thumping as best I can at public opinion."

The Senate attempted to abolish the 13 reserves that totaled 21.4 million acres, established by President Cleveland [in 1897]. Muir wrote letters and mobilized the Sierra Club, while Sargent and others lobbied Congress—the measure died in the House. That summer, with Pinchot head of the forestry division in the Department of Agriculture, two hundred thousand sheep were allowed into the Sierra. "There is no one but you and I," Sargent, wrote to Muir in 1902, "who really love the North American trees."

The conservation movement in the United States split between those favoring utility and those who regarded the preservation of natural resources as the national and only imperative. While the view of nature as commodity dominated professional circles and government bureaus, Joseph LeConte raised his voice in the Sierra Club Bulletin to remind that while "it is true that trees are for human use…there are aesthetic uses as well as commercial—uses for the spiritual wealth of all, as well as for the material wealth of some."

In the northwestern corner of Yosemite National Park, the Tuolumne River runs down through a long, narrow gorge and into what was once the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Described by Muir, who visited the Valley in the early 1870s, as having a close resemblance to Yosemite Valley, he was the person who urged that Yosemite's twin be included in Yosemite National Park. Within a few years of the establishment of the Park, San Francisco proposed that Hetch Hetchy be turned into a water reservoir by plugging the southern end of the Valley with a dam. With the privately owned Spring Valley Water Company charging San Francisco high rates and poor service, the city attempted to purchase the company as a means of gaining control of its water supply, but was rebuffed when Muir and the Sierra Club raised a protest. San Francisco tried again in 1901, under the administration of Mayor James D. Phelan. An advocate for municipally run utilities, he was able to revive the Hetch Hetchy plan.

A right-of-way bill, allowing water conduits through national parks "for domestic, public, or other beneficial uses," passed Congress in February 1901. The Sierra Club only learned of it after passage. Under the provisions of the bill, San Francisco applied to the Department of the Interior for the rights to Hetch Hetchy. Under the policy intended to keep utilitarian projects out of national parks, the plan was rejected in 1903 and 1905. After the second ruling, Pinchot declared Hetch Hetchy could be dammed with no aesthetic loss. The tipping point came in April 1906 with the San Francisco earthquake. In the aftermath with damage predominantly caused by fire, the entire Bay area was water conscious as never before. No system would have been able to survive to deliver the water necessary to quench the hundreds of fires that raked the city. But ex-Mayor Phelan charged that the denial of the city's petition for the Tuolumne River Hetch Hetchy Valley contributed to the disaster and he was widely believed. The city of San Francisco's petition was resubmitted in 1907; and in May 1908 it was granted rights to Hetch Hetchy Valley. Public interest had dictated the use of the site for a municipal water supply. Taking precedence over the arguments of the Park's defenders, at issue was the greatest benefit to the greatest number—Pinchot had won! There was after all another valley—Hetch Hetchy was not unique.

For Muir the issue was clear. A precedent had been established that national parks could be carved up piecemeal, treated like every other portion of the national landscape—subject to the same pressures, the same utilitarian standards. According to Muir, the development of Hetch Hetchy was fraud and betrayal of the national trust. Phelan attack Muir. "I am sure he would sacrifice his own family for the preservation of beauty. He considers human life very cheap, and he considers the works of God superior."

In the summer of 1911, as Muir prepared for a trip to South America, he worked to complete The Yosemite. In the final chapter he concluded: "These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty dollar. Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man." The cause was hopeless and Muir felt alone. The Senate passed, in December 1913, the Raker Bill granting San Francisco the use of Hetch Hetchy. Muir wrote that the loss of the valley was "hard to bear." He could only hope, "in spite of Satan & Company, some sort of compensation must surely come out of this dark damn- dam-damnation." The first water from Hetch Hetchy arrived in San Francisco in 1934. The dam cost over $100 million, more than twice the estimate.

In 1951, the Sierra Club Board of Directors amended the official purposes of the Club. "To explore, enjoy, and render accessible the mountain regions of the Pacific Coast. . . ." became "To explore, enjoy, and protect the Sierra Nevada and other scenic resources of the United States." The new orientation was a move from supporting access to blocking attempts to build new access-ways into wilderness. In addition, the Sierra Club by 1950 had nearly 7,000 members, most on the West Coast, in nine chapters. Little known outside California, the Club began to establish a presence in the East, and took a more absolute position with regard to development proposals throughout the United States. Protect is defined as to defend, guard, and preserve, but the purpose in protecting the natural world embraces nurture and calls for knowledge, caring, education and educating, and through education, remembrance [that first we appreciate the natural world's shared sheer wonder and beauty and resource, and then if part is lost it not be forgotten, if repaired its recovery be celebrated, and if sustained it be thought remarkable, extraordinary.]

In Silent Spring, Rachael Carson noted that we stand where two roads diverge—the roads are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway in which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. It is the road that E. O. Wilson, Professor of Entomology at Harvard University, reminds us will take millions of years to correct--the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats caused by our journey down the smooth superhighway. This is, according to Wilson, the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us for.

The other fork in the road, the one less traveled - the one the Sierra Club has taken and continues to journey down, offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the Earth. It is the road with the sign that reads "land ethic this way." Muir noted, "Nature's object in making animals and plants might possibly be first of all the happiness of each one of them, not the creation of all for the happiness of one." Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac, that the land ethic enlarges the boundaries of community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals—Muir would have added mountains and glaciers—collectively, "the land." Here we are members and citizens; and here we look out at a world we have changed and are changing in ways that for most of us are not visible. Del-us-ion about climate change is smoke and mirrors with "us" in the center of the word.

We, according to Liberty Hyde Bailey, who wrote The Holy Earth published in 1915 and retired from the deanship of the New York State College of Agriculture at Cornell University that same year, we are "of all the disturbing living factors, the greatest." We have, he said, "set mighty changes going, destroying forests, upturning sleeping prairies, flooding deserts, deflecting courses of rivers," and we are carving coal from the earth, drilling oil, constructing pipelines, extracting natural gas through hydraulic fracturing. We are altering the climate, fueling extinction, borrowing from the Earth and from the future that which we can not repair or replace. We are, however, members of John Muir's vision. We are the Sierra Club, the Resilient Habitats Campaign. Here. We are encouraged from our vantage point to continue to prosper every concern and consideration that will benefit the natural world, our lives, the lives of our children and grandchildren, and the generations that follow. Though we experience difficulty, it was no different for Muir--the path, he reminds us, will always be marked by challenges, and at times we will find ourselves alone—as did he. We will endure failure and persevere and succeed-- for every good thing, great and small needs defense-- that we may contribute to the conservation of the smallest ecosystems and the preservation of the world.


See the following resources:

Liberty Hyde Bailey. The Holy Earth. Ithaca, New York: New York State
College of Agriculture and Life Science, 1915.

Rachael Carson. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1962.

Michael P. Cohen. The History of the Sierra Club 1892-1970. San Francisco:
Sierra Club Books, 1988.

Stephen Fox. John Muir and His Legacy. The American Conservation Movement.
Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1981

Aldo Leopold. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford University Press,

Tom Turner. Sierra Club: 100 Years of Protecting Nature. New York: Harry N.
Abrams, 1991.

E. O. Wilson. Biophilia. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1984.



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