This week (April 15-23) marks National Park Week, where the National Park Service—dubbed “America’s Best Idea”—offers free admission to all national parks across the country. This Saturday (April 22nd) also marks Earth Day, so there’s no better way to celebrate our planet than to spend time in the great outdoors—and for free.
One of the most important figures in the history of the national parks is John Muir, often called the “Father of Our National Park System”. Muir was a Scottish-born American naturalist, explorer, writer, and conservationist. He was born on April 21st, 1838 and developed a passionate love for nature and the great outdoors. Muir is the man to which we owe the preservation of the national parks and the beginning of widespread environmental awareness in the United States.
After settling in California in 1868 and spending time in Yosemite Valley, Muir was convinced of the need to protect this land from destructive farming and logging practices (“Yosemite”). In the 1870s, he began publishing articles in newspapers about Yosemite and his experiences in nature. His writings, specifically his series of articles titled “Studies in the Sierras”, gained popularity across America with his magnificent descriptions of glaciers and granite walls in the Sierra Nevada wilderness, his “naturalist philosophy”, and his encouragement of individual exploration in the mountains (“Brief”). Muir’s writings reached citizens, members of Congress, and President Theodore Roosevelt, who were all moved to take action in protecting the pristine wilderness Muir detailed.
Muir is often credited with beginning the modern conservation movement. He worked with the Romantic writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, who shared Muir’s passion for the great outdoors and the beauty of nature. Much of Muir’s writing was devoted to advocacy for the protection of untouched land and natural wonders through the creation of national parks. He also wrote about glaciology—specifically his theory that glaciers shaped Yosemite Valley—the sequoias, and the need for conservation in general (“Passion”). Over the course of his career as a conservationist, Muir wrote “300 magazine articles and 12 books” (“Passion”). He was instrumental in the creation of several national parks, including Yosemite, Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest, and Grand Canyon. His writings, specifically his book Our National Parks, attracted the attention of President Roosevelt (“Brief”), who visited Muir in Yosemite in 1903 (“Passion”). Muir provided encouragement for some of Roosevelt’s key progressive environmental protection programs.
To continue educating the public about the wilderness and advocating for conservation, Muir founded and became president of the Sierra Club in 1892. The Sierra Club—which is still active today—is currently a two million member strong environmental organization that campaigns to protect the environment from unsustainable development and pollution. One of the first of the Sierra Club’s conservation campaigns was the fight led by John Muir against the O’Shaughnessy Dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite. This battle was eventually lost, but it was “reportedly the first major battle of the environmental movement” (“Yosemite”).
Muir died in December of 1914 in Los Angeles (“Yosemite”). His activism, conservation efforts, and role in the creation of the national parks gave America a new appreciation for nature and the ecological importance of protecting it as a piece of our country’s heritage. Through the Sierra Club, Muir’s activism and dedication to the protection of wilderness lives on, and the battles he fought for the environment in his time continue to this day. His writings fostered a love for nature and a passion for wilderness exploration in millions of Americans, who continue to, like Muir once said, “‘climb the mountains and get their good tidings’” (“Brief”).
“John Muir: A Brief Biography.” Sierra Club, http://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/life/muir_biography.aspx. Accessed 19 Mar. 2017.
“John Muir: A Passion for Nature.” The National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/jomu/learn/historyculture/people.htm. Accessed 19 Mar. 2017.
“Yosemite: John Muir.” The National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/yose/learn/historyculture/muir.htm. Accessed 20 Mar. 2017.