The author talks conservation, Yosemite, and the legacy of John Muir.
Robert Underwood Johnson (1853-1937), once a titan of American magazine publishing, is now most often remembered, if at all, as the driving force behind the epic four-volume Battles and Leaders of the Civil War series. But his relationship with famed naturalist John Muir has left an indelible mark on the United States. As Dean King’s Guardians of the Valley: John Muir and the Friendship that Saved Yosemite explains, it was Johnson’s four-decade collaboration with Muir (1838-1914) that ultimately led to the creation of California’s Yosemite National Park. Guardians of the Valley is the award-winning author’s 10th work of nonfiction.
Muir and Johnson met in 1889. How did their friendship lead to saving Yosemite?
Johnson really helped Muir become one of the leading voices of nature, along with John Burroughs and Theodore Roosevelt. When Johnson did the Civil War series, and [it] doubled [Century magazine’s] circulation to 250,000, they were looking to do another series on the Gold Rush. Johnson came out to San Francisco…met Muir…[and went to]…Yosemite Valley, where he saw how beautiful it is. Muir is saying to him, “The state’s not taking good enough care of it.” Johnson says [to Muir], “Write these two articles, and I’m going to take [them] down to DC. We’re going to get a bill passed” to protect the valley. Muir’s voice in Century magazine was treasured.
What were the men’s roles in the founding of the Sierra Club, an organization most commonly associated with Muir?
When Johnson encouraged Muir to start an advocacy group in California, Muir said, “Hey, I don’t want anything to do with that. I’m a writer…My role is to be the bard of the mountains.” Johnson said, “I can put together some preservationists [in the East] who can fight for your mountains, but you and other Californians don’t want that. You need your own group.” Some professors at Berkeley and other professionals in San Francisco were very much into promoting recreation and ultimately preservation. Muir went to the [early] meetings, and they elected him president of the Sierra Club. Muir’s ultimate goal was to bring people to the mountains. That’s what the Sierra Club’s goal was.
Although he was born in Scotland, Muir grew up in Wisconsin, where Native Americans still resided. By the time he got to California, though, there were no Native Americans living in Yosemite. As a national figure in the conservation movement, what were his views on their rights?
He lived during a period when Native Americans were being brutally removed from their land by the federal government. He talked about the injustice of this, but he didn’t speak out about it much. Even though they were gone from Yosemite when Muir got there, you wish he’d have gotten more politically involved with that cause.
Explain how a phrase like “greatest good for greatest number” means different things to preservationists like Muir and conservationists like Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt’s head of the Forest Service.
Pinchot had that as a catchphrase. I think [Muir, Johnson, and Roosevelt] would agree with that idea. But what was the greatest use of the land? Whereas Pinchot and Roosevelt maybe fell on the side of conserving nature, using it, and harvesting it, Muir’s and Johnson’s were more on preserving the places of natural beauty the way they were. But, that said, Muir was a practical guy. He was not only a farmer, but he worked in manufacturing early on in his life and had a mine. Pinchot and Muir became rivals on opposite political points, but they respected one another. The line between preservation and conservation is maybe a thin one.
Was Muir being an elitist when he complained about automobiles — “puffing machines” was his term — coming to Yosemite?
At that point, he’s getting a little cranky. He was for bringing people to Yosemite and preserving Hetch Hetchy [Valley] so that there would be more space to bring more people and avoid the crowds. He never tried to prevent people from coming to the national parks. You can ask the same questions now. What kind of experience are we having at Yosemite Park when you’re there with tens of thousands of people? It’s certainly not the experience that [Muir] was hoping you’d have.
The most persistent pressure against preserving Yosemite came from California’s largest city. San Francisco, with more than twice Los Angeles’ population in 1900, had an insatiable demand for water. And after the 1906 earthquake, the federal government was inclined to look favorably on any request to spur its rebuilding.
[The privately owned San Francisco Water Works] controlled the water rights all around San Francisco. After the earthquake, they had the political capital to get what they wanted. Although there were other places to go, the cheapest thing to do was dam the Tuolumne River at Hetch Hetchy and take that part of the park. The secretary of the Interior came to San Francisco and said, “We, the federal government, want to help you in any way that you want to be helped.” Muir and the Sierra Club weren’t even represented at the public hearing [opening the way for the dam at Hetch Hetchy].
In the end, how did Muir assess his own work?
Part of the legend of Muir was because he lost that battle for Hetch Hetchy, he died [on Christmas Eve 1914] of a broken heart. I might be debunking that legend. His faith was so deep in God and in humanity that he kept bucking up Johnson that right will win in the end. Two years [after Muir’s death], the National Park Service was formed. He and Johnson really won that war.
John Grady, a managing editor of Navy Times for more than eight years and retired communications director of the Association of the United States Army after 17 years, is the author of Matthew Fontaine Maury: Father of Oceanography, which was nominated for the Library of Virginia’s 2016 nonfiction award. He also has contributed to the New York Times “Disunion” series and the Civil War Monitor, and he is a blogger for the Navy’s Sesquicentennial of the Civil War site. He continues writing on national security and defense. His later work has appeared on USNI.org, BreakingDefense, Government Executive, govexec.com, and nextgov.com, among other sites.