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A Wild Idea

June/July 2016

In the late 1800s, Americans looked inward and saw rare landscapes that needed to be saved. In the process, the country invented a park system that has inspired generations.

In July 1869, a 31-year-old John Muir took a job herding sheep in the meadows above California’s Yosemite Valley. The future father of American conservation had set out to seek his “true home” away from the grime and hustle of the city, but he soon realized that even the Eden he discovered in the Sierra Nevada was being damaged by human activity.

Yosemite had been declared a state park five years earlier, when Congress granted the valley to California. Despite the nominal protection, the state left management up to private hospitality companies that catered to some 1,000 tourists each summer. Nature parks were still a new idea everywhere in the world, and little thought had been given to management; many saw untended public land as open for all uses. So while the valley remained the domain of sightseers, the company soon set out after bigger returns by opening up vast areas in and around Yosemite Valley to logging, farming and grazing.

“Incredible numbers of sheep are driven to the mountain pastures every summer, and desolation follows them,” Muir lamented. “Every garden within reach is trampled, the shrubs are stripped of leaves as if devoured by locusts, and the woods are burned to improve the pasturage.” Muir, who cared for some 2,000 sheep and later worked at a sawmill beneath Yosemite Falls, did not exempt himself from criticism. He realized that in making his living in the mountains, he was contributing to environmental degradation of what he loved most.

“The great wilds of our country once held to be boundless and inexhaustible are being rapidly invaded and overrun in every direction, and everything destructible in them is being destroyed,” Muir wrote.

The need for action might have been obvious to Muir, but it would be another four decades before Congress would provide America’s most special places with proper stewardship. Those years saw the close of the frontier era, the expansion of federal authority to set aside public land, and rancorous debate over whether and how to protect these most pristine parcels. Americans gradually came to realize that although their country was vast, its treasures were finite. It was a revelation that would culminate in the creation of the National Park Service.


“The great wilds of our country once held to be boundless and inexhaustible are being rapidly invaded and overrun in every direction, and everything destructible in them is being destroyed." --John Muir


By the time Muir arrived in California, much of the great forests back east had been logged, the timber carted off to build railroads and fuel the industrial revolution that built soot-choked cities. At the same time, some Americans believed that the natural world had spiritual value. “In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, who helped found transcendentalism, the movement that reminded urbanites of nature’s restorative power. “The tradesman, the attorney comes out of the din and craft of the street, and sees the sky and the woods, and is a man again.”

This idea was made manifest in Manhattan’s Central Park, which, beginning in 1858, gave New Yorkers of every social class access to open space and natural beauty. The park’s co-designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, was also head of the commission charged with managing Yosemite, and like Emerson, he made the case for wilderness as a balm for society’s ills. He warned that surrendering Yosemite to “the convenience, bad taste, playfulness, carelessness, or wanton destructiveness of present visitors” would have an incalculable cost to posterity.

The United States built on the Yosemite idea in 1872, when Congress named Yellowstone the first national park. It was followed 18 years later by Sequoia and General Grant (now King’s Canyon) national parks, both created in 1890 to preserve groves of California’s big trees. That year, Congress also designated about 1,500 square miles surrounding the Yosemite Valley as Yosemite National Park, securing what Muir called its “Sierran fountains,” the watersheds on which the valley and its wonders depended. In each case, the legislation creating the parks ordered that they be set aside in perpetuity—but it did not dictate how they were to be used.

The first parks focused on the West’s most dramatic landscapes, which had been brought to Easterners’ attention by writers like Muir and painters like Albert Bierstadt, whose luminous canvases put the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada before their eyes for the first time. And soon tourists were arriving to see the sights in person.

Within a few years as many as 5,000 visitors passed through Yellowstone National Park every year. As they marveled at Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs, they also poured laundry soap into geysers in hopes of provoking eruptions, carved their names into rocks, left trash and trampled vegetation. Meanwhile, a privately owned company was granted a monopoly contract that allowed it to fell trees, build enormous hotels and even plant crops wherever it saw fit.


The first parks focused on the West’s most dramatic landscapes, which had been brought to Easterners’ attention by writers like Muir and painters like Albert Bierstadt, whose luminous canvases put the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada before their eyes for the first time. And soon tourists were arriving to see the sights in person.


In 1875, Captain William Ludlow of the U.S. Army led an exploration of Yellowstone; his report described exquisite mineral formations, along with poachers whose “wholesale and wasteful butchery” threatened to wipe out elk. He also noted sightseers who “prowled about with shovel and ax” to claim souvenirs of their own. Seething, he called for the Army to get things under control, but it wasn’t until 1886 that the secretary of the Interior, given new authority by Congress, requested 50 troopers from the 1st U.S. Cavalry. In the beginning the troopers could punish poachers and vandals only by kicking them out of the park, but it was a meaningful first step, and the cavalry would go on to protect other national parks.

But even as troopers did the practical work of conservation, Americans were still debating the purpose of public lands. In 1905, the National Forest Service was tasked with managing 56 million acres for multiple uses, including recreation, logging and hunting. The new agency’s mission was, in the words of its founding chief, Gifford Pinchot, “the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.” Although the forest reserves remained separate from the national parks (despite Pinchot’s insistence that the latter also fall under his auspices), the Forest Service’s utilitarian approach to natural resources management offered a contrasting vision, one that was gaining prominence within the federal government. Some began to argue for using parkland for utilitarian purposes as well—and nowhere were the stakes higher than in the place where it had all begun, Yosemite National Park.

John Muir, who after decades of evangelizing for nature founded the Sierra Club and became America’s most respected preservationist, had long believed that Yosemite Valley was not alone in deserving protection. Just 20 miles north in the same national park lay another spectacular valley, Hetch Hetchy. Muir described it as “one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples.” It became the center of a debate about how national park land should be used. And in 1913, despite strong public outcry, it was doomed by Congress to be dammed and drowned to create a reservoir for the city of San Francisco.


Today, the National Park Service and its 20,000 employees safeguard 59 national parks, along with 352 monuments, historical sites, seashores and recreation areas—a system that has inspired similar efforts in nearly 100 countries around the world.


For many, Hetch Hetchy's fate served as a wake-up call, and soon a loose coalition gathered to press for a dedicated agency to ensure that the parks remained immune from utilitarianism. The campaign’s leader was Stephen Mather, a California-born tycoon whose depressive episodes were relieved only by time in nature. In 1914, Mather visited Yosemite and Sequoia national parks and was appalled to find crumbling trails, grazing cattle and a conspiracy of private businessmen to log sequoias. He dashed off a letter of protest to Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane, accusing the government of abandoning a sacred trust.

Mather’s eloquence prompted Lane to arrange a meeting and offer Mather a job. The parks were likened to orphans. “They were anybody’s business and therefore nobody’s business,” as Horace Albright, Lane’s legal aide, later wrote. “The time was ripe for some person who really cared to wade into the problem.… Lane made it clear that Mather’s job would mainly be to lobby Congress for a national parks bureau.” Mather accepted a position as assistant secretary of the Interior, with Albright as his deputy.

Mather had made his fortune selling borax soap, and he set about using the same marketing skills to sell the parks bureau. Mather and Albright used Washington’s utilitarian mind-set to their advantage, spinning preservation as an economic necessity, given the potential value of the parks as tourist attractions. They partnered with railroads, which had long supported the creation of more national parks to which trains might carry people, and they worked with the nascent auto industry. Mather used his own fortune to help pay a full-time publicity writer and enlisted magazines like National Geographic and The Saturday Evening Post to promote the parks’ wonders.

The charismatic Mather charmed members of Congress, and in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, a bill drafted by Albright, Olmsted and others, which created and funded the Park Service. Its mission would be “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Mather was named the agency’s first director, and Albright as his deputy.

The Organic Act came too late for John Muir: Lore has it that losing Hetch Hetchy broke his heart, and he died of pneumonia in 1914. But Muir, who had done so much to make the national parks a reality, would have been proud.

The act marked the beginning of a century of unprecedented conservation work across the United States. Today, the National Park Service and its 20,000 employees safeguard 59 national parks, along with 352 monuments, historical sites, seashores and recreation areas—a system that has inspired similar efforts in nearly 100 countries around the world. In 2015, the parks saw some 307 million visitors (the most ever), providing untold opportunities for people to learn about the nation’s past and explore wild, forever-protected lands. From Alaska to Maine, and from the Dakotas to Florida, the National Park Service is keeping America’s promise to protect its finest natural treasures for future generations.