Happy 100th, National Park System

Muir and Roosevelt, Yosemite Valley

Muir and Roosevelt, Yosemite Valley

It’s surely one of the most important camping trips in American history.

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt accompanied John Muir on a visit to Yosemite. Muir joined Roosevelt in Oakland, California, for the train trip downstate to Raymond. The presidential entourage then traveled by stagecoach into the park. While traveling to the park, Muir told the president about state mismanagement of the Yosemite valley and rampant exploitation of the valley’s resources. Even before they arrived at the park, Muir was able to convince Roosevelt that the best way to protect the valley was through federal control and management.

After entering the park and seeing the magnificent splendor of the valley, the president asked Muir to show him the real Yosemite. Muir and Roosevelt set off largely by themselves and camped in the back country. The duo talked late into the night, slept in the brisk open air of Glacier Point, and were dusted by a fresh snowfall in the morning. It was a night Roosevelt never forgot.

That camping trip didn’t immediately lead to the National Park Service; the park was created in 1906. The National Park Service was created ten years later to administer Yosemite and Yellowstone National Park, created much earlier in 1872. But it was that camping trip, the time that Muir and Roosevelt spent together in Yosemite, that created the national park system.

Muir had written, ““Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” Roosevelt read that, and Muir’s heartfelt plea that the great sequoia forests be saved. The President asked Muir to show him. And he did.

Muir was unusually (for him) understated about the trip. He wrote a friend, explaining he would miss a sailing trip, “An influential man from Washington wants to make a trip into the Sierra with me, and I might be able to do some forest good in freely talking around the campfire.”

There have been children’s books written about their camping trip. Ken Burns touched on the three-day trip in his fine documentary on campingtripAmerica’s national parks. But the trip is little-known today outside of the conservation community.

That camping trip led directly to the creation of additional national parks, including Crater Lake; to the enactment of the Antiquities Act, which allowed a president, by proclamation, to preserve chunks of the wilderness; and to help create a conservation ethos in America. Teddy Roosevelt was already an ardent outdoorsman before he met John Muir. But that camping trip helped make Roosevelt a conservationist as well.

Muir and Roosevelt later disagreed on the purposes of preservation. Gifford Pinchot, Roosevelt’s director of what later became the National Forest Service, saw conservation as sensible use. Muir saw it as preservation. That disagreement divides the conservation community today. The “multiple use” doctrine, for better or worse – and for WC it’s mostly worse – is Pinchot’s legacy. National Parks and Wilderness areas are Muir’s legacy. WC thinks a clearcut forest isn’t useful for anything. But that will have to be the subject of another post.

For a good history of the conservation movement in the United States try Wilderness and the American Mind, by Roderick Nash, now in its 4th Edition.

John Muir (fourth from right) with President Theodore Roosevelt (sixth from right) in Yosemite.

John Muir (fourth from right) with President Theodore Roosevelt (sixth from right) in Yosemite