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John Muir’s big mistake
The moment when the legendary naturalist entertained doubt—and nearly scuttled the American public lands tradition
Throughout 1897, John Muir’s friends beseeched him. He had to write some articles, some essays, maybe a book. He needed to apply his vast literary talents to their favorite political cause—public land.
The tatterdemalion Muir, then 59 years old, had come to some awareness of himself. He loved to go on adventures: jumping glacial crevasses, descending canyons previously believed impassible, and climbing a hundred-foot Douglas fir just to sway in a windstorm. He loved to tell stories about nature. He liked to think philosophically about nature, and he enjoyed spurring spiritual contemplation in others.
Muir found the process of writing painful, but he knew it was important. If he only told the stories orally, how would they last? He found politics distinctly distasteful, with all of the horse-trading and compromises. As a Scottish immigrant who spent many years without a fixed address, in most past elections he probably hadn’t even voted. He was too much the loner, the spiritualist, the prophet. So when his friends asked him to write in support of a political agenda, they were making a big request.
Those friends included Charles Sprague Sargent, a brilliant if irascible botanist who headed Harvard University’s famed Arnold Arboretum. Also Arnold Hague, a geologist who for the last two decades had spent every summer in Yellowstone National Park, making geological observations, and every winter in Washington DC, trying to translate them into policy. Also Robert Underwood Johnson, a magazine editor who’d done all the behind-the-scenes political work that allowed Muir to be the figurehead president of the Sierra Club. And even Gifford Pinchot, a well-born young forester whose appetite for political compromise would be either the salvation or the death of their cause.
All these men save Johnson had been on the 1896 National Forest Commission, charged with designing public land policies for Congress. Since 1891, Presidents had been setting aside “forest reserves,” but these lands had never received any priorities or budgets from a surprisingly dysfunctional Congress. Who should govern these places—the military? professional foresters? How much logging, grazing, and mining would be acceptable? Until Congress could articulate a vision, no activities at all were allowed on the reserves—not even trespassing. Adjacent communities grew furious. The best Congress could do, when pressured by the National Academy of Science, was to appoint this commission.
Muir wasn’t on the commission. Of course: he wasn’t the type to go to meetings. But Harvard gave him an honorary degree in 1896, and while he was there to receive it, Sargent invited him to join the commission on part of its tour of Western lands. Muir got to see some beautiful country, listen to their debates, and tell some stories. One night at the Grand Canyon, he and Pinchot snuck off to philosophize and doze around a campfire until near dawn.
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After returning from the tour, the Commission bungled its assignment. In early 1897, before proposing any new management rules, it proposed that President Grover Cleveland set aside thirteen new forest reserves. The swiftly-enacted plan doubled the size of a system still apparently subject to the no-trespassing policy. A backlash led by well-connected Western mining, timber, and cattle barons created a political firestorm that threatened all forest reserves, including those previously set aside. Privatizing these lands would lead to unregulated development, likely decimating the solitary wilderness spirituality that Muir so valued.
Commission members were summoned to the Capitol to save their cause. The cause, they realized, needed storytelling, not just policymaking. So Sargent, Hague, and Johnson all reached out to Muir. They arranged for Harper’s Weekly and the Atlantic Monthly to publish articles. All Muir had to do was write them. Muir’s evocative descriptions of magical places would educate the public and ground the debate. “You want to make a public opinion as fast as possible,” Sargent said.
It was a rare shift for Sargent, who normally maintained a patrician’s contempt for the dirty work of politics. Science should rule, he believed. Sargent had previously recommended that a commission of three impartial scientists make all decisions about wilderness in the Adirondacks, and as his proposal was debated and altered in the legislature, he fumed, “The whole matter is simply disgusting from beginning to end.” His experience at the federal level was proving no better. Soon his letters to Muir began sounding more bitter and cynical.
Muir started writing. Then, inexplicably, Harper’s Weekly waited seven weeks between receiving his piece and printing it. Muir feared the delay would give corporate interests time to fully kill the reserves. The lands would be logged and mined, grazed by the sheep he derided as “hooved locusts” or carved into homesteads like the one of his miserable childhood. Muir was tempted by Sargent’s pessimism. The Harper’s article, Muir told Johnson, was "too late to do any good I fear… Those Western Corporations with their shady millions seem invincible in the Senate.” Politics would get the better of them.
That was Muir’s big mistake: to cynically expect that money would overwhelm anything he could do. The error came in his thoughts more than his actions. Bravely or resignedly, he did tell Johnson that “The fight must go on.” He did grant interviews, and finish his essays for the Atlantic. He told his natural stories. But he expected to lose.
In fact, a Congressional movement the following spring to abolish forest reserves died quickly. Thanks in large part to Muir’s essays—later included in one of his most-admired books, Our National Parks—public opinion now firmly favored the Commission’s objectives. The law resulting from the Commission’s work, now known as the Organic Act of 1897, founded the system now known as the US Forest Service.
Today we face many of the same issues Muir did: environmental crisis, income inequality, immigration policy, women’s rights. And we have the same enemy: cynicism. If we believe that moneyed interests are too powerful for the act of voting to be worthwhile—even after we learn this story—our mistake ends up being even bigger than Muir’s.
This story is adapted from Chapter 10 of my book Natural Rivals: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and the Creation of America’s Public Lands. All sources are listed in the book’s endnotes.
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