How John Muir Helped Pave the Way for the National Park System

By: Michelle Konstantinovsky  | 

John Muir
John Muir in 1902, at around age 64. Library of Congress

To conservationists, outdoor enthusiasts, and wildlife lovers, John Muir's name evokes countless connotations. Known as an explorer, farmer, inventor, writer, and more, the Scottish-born naturalist made a lasting impact on the landscape of the United States, and his legacy lives on in all corners of the country.

Born on April 21, 1838 in Dunbar, Scotland, Muir immigrated to the U.S. with his family at the age of 11, first settling in Fountain Lake, Wisconsin, and then relocating to Hickory Hill, a farm near the city of Portage, Wisconsin. Muir learned discipline at an early age: His father insisted that he and his younger brother work the family land each day, and as the young Muir explored the surrounding countryside, he developed an affinity for the natural world.

But Muir also had a taste for innovation, and as a young man, began inventing various tools and objects, including a device that literally tipped him out of bed before dawn. In his memoir, Muir described the "early rising machine" as "a timekeeper which would tell the day of the week and the day of the month, as well as strike like a common clock and point out the hours; also ... have an attachment whereby it could be connected with a bedstead to set me on my feet at any hour in the morning; also to start fires, light lamps, etc."

Muir first drew attention for his imaginative creations when he took his inventions to the state fair in Madison, in 1860. Later that year, he started his education at the University of Wisconsin, but left school three years later to travel — his goal was to explore the raw, untouched land of the northern states.

Muir sustained an injury in 1867 that changed the course of his life — while working at a carriage parts shop in Indianapolis, an awl pierced his right eye and he temporarily lost sight in both eyes. The fear of permanently losing his vision spurred Muir to shift gears, personally and professionally — he abandoned the industrial world and decided to further explore Earth's natural wonders instead. Some speculate that it was while he was recovering from his injury that he first heard about Yosemite.

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Protecting the Natural World from "Progress"

Harold Wood, a John Muir scholar, presenter and author, who is also a long-time environmental activist in numerous organizations, says that once Muir recovered, he walked a thousand miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico, sailed to Cuba, and later Panama, and eventually landed in San Francisco in March 1868. California became his new home, and from 1868 to 1874, he lived in Yosemite on and off, an experience, according to Tony Perrottet at Smithsonian Magazine, "that transformed him into a successor to Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson." During his time in Yosemite, Muir conceived of a "then-controversial theory of the glaciation of Yosemite Valley" and began to make a name for himself as a conservationist.

"The mindset of the 19th century was progress," Wood says. "That meant the development and extraction of natural resources at all costs. Muir was practically unique in his views that wild places and natural resources should be protected for future generations."

John Muir
John Muir, right, with one of his best friends and environmental allies, Theodore Roosevelt.
Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

Muir began authoring a series of articles in 1874 known as "Studies in the Sierra" and left Yosemite to pursue his passion for writing in the Bay Area, traveling often to locations such as Alaska. He married Louisa (Louie) Wanda Strentzel in 1880 and the couple moved to Martinez, California, to raise their two daughters, Wanda and Helen. For the next decade, he worked with his father-in-law to manage the family fruit ranch, but eventually turned his sights back to travel and conservation efforts. Muir continued writing and drawing attention to issues like the devastation of mountain meadows and forests, and in partnership with Century Magazine editor Robert Underwood Johnson, Muir pushed for the eventual passage of an 1890 act in Congress that created Yosemite National Park.

Wood says Muir was also personally involved in the creation of Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon national parks and earned the title of "Father of Our National Park System."

"His words and deeds significantly influenced President Theodore Roosevelt's innovative conservation programs, which included establishing the first National Monuments by Presidential Proclamation, and Yosemite National Park and national forests by congressional action. One of the earliest national monuments established by President Roosevelt was Petrified Forest in Arizona, at Muir's urging," he notes.

One fact Wood says most people don't know about Muir's legacy is that when Yosemite National Park was established in 1890, "Yosemite Valley was not included in the park boundaries — nor was the famous Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Yosemite Valley had been given to the State of California by a federal land grant by Abraham Lincoln in the middle of the U.S. Civil War," Wood says. "In many ways, it was mismanaged by the State of California which had trouble keeping out squatters and responsibly managing tourism, allowing wildflower meadows to be destroyed by sheep and cattle."

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Founding of the Sierra Club

Wood also says that Muir had the foresight to realize that he couldn't push for continued conservation advocacy alone, and that collective action would be necessary for an enduring impact on environmental protection. "That is why he agreed, in 1892, to attend the Sierra Club's organizational meeting, and agreed to become the first president of the Sierra Club, an office he held until his death in 1914," Wood says. "He was glad to be part of such an organization because, in his words, 'We will be able to do something for wildness and make the mountains glad.'"

Described on its website as "the most enduring and influential grassroots environmental organization in the United States," the Sierra Club continues to "amplify the power of our 3.8 million members and supporters to defend everyone's right to a healthy world." The organization's national community of volunteers, advocates, and grassroots activists have secured the protection for 439 parks and monuments, won the passage of the Clean Air and Endangered Species Acts, and put over 281 coal plants on the path to replacement with clean energy, among other accomplishments.

John Muir
John Muir walks through Muir Woods, which was declared a national monument on Jan. 9, 1908, by President Theodore Roosevelt.
GOGA Park Archives/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

According to Wood, Muir spent many long years advocating for the return of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove from California state management to be incorporated in the Yosemite National Park. "In fact, this was really the first campaign for the early Sierra Club," he says. "To this end, in 1898 the Sierra Club set up a public 'reading room' within the Valley, staffed by Muir's young colleague, William E. Colby, to help people enjoy Yosemite and to learn more about the region. In 1904, the Club built a stone visitor center in the valley, now named the Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center."

Despite those efforts, it wasn't until 1906 — after a 17-year campaign spearheaded by Muir and the Sierra Club — that President Roosevelt signed federal legislation to return Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to become part of the Yosemite National Park.

"As the Sierra Club's first president, his leadership inspired many efforts that came even after his death, such as the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916, and the Wilderness Preservation System in 1964," Wood says. "His writings inspired generations of conservationists like National Park Service's first director Stephen Mather, author of the Wilderness Act, Howard Zahniser, famed photographer Ansel Adams, conservationist David Brower, and many more. This included a generation of grassroots activists throughout the 20th century who were inspired by Muir's legacy to establish a series of additional National Parks and Monuments, and many new units in the National Wilderness Preservation System."

While Muir's last battle to prevent the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley within Yosemite National Park failed, Wood says his fight made a lasting impact on societal attitudes toward conservation efforts. "That lost battle ultimately resulted in a widespread conviction that our national parks should be held inviolate. Many proposals to dam our national parks since that time have been stopped because of the efforts of citizens inspired by John Muir, and today there are legitimate proposals to restore Hetch Hetchy, while still preserving San Francisco's water supply from the Tuolumne River. Today, there is a growing movement to remove dams which destroy native fisheries like salmon and steelhead and natural ecosystems, such as the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams in the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State."

IN 1914, a year after losing the battle to protect the Hetch Hetchy, Muir died in Los Angeles following a short illness. "Perhaps his greatest legacy is not even wilderness preservation or national parks as such, but his teaching us the essential characteristic of the science of ecology, the interrelatedness of all living things," Wood says. "He summed it up nicely in his often quoted verse: 'When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.'"

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