Is environmentalist John Muir’s legacy outdated?

A commemorative US stamp of John Muir, issued in 1998. Picture: Contributed
A commemorative US stamp of John Muir, issued in 1998. Picture: Contributed
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As a festival of events mark the centenary of the death of environmentalist John Muir, Dani Garavelli asks if his aims are still viable in the 21st century

IN A black and white photograph taken near the beginning of the 20th century, they stand, two dapper gents, on a rocky outcrop overlooking the dramatic rugged backdrop of Yosemite National Park in California. The one with the long, flowing beard is Scots-born naturalist John Muir; his companion, with the cowboy-style boots and necktie is Theodore Roosevelt, hunter, explorer and 26th president of the US. And the three-night camping trip the pair shared, trekking through the wilderness with a couple of pack mules, was probably the most significant in environmental history.

After Roosevelt had taken in the splendour of the Sequoia Groves, “whose majestic trunks, beautiful in colour and in symmetry, rose round us like the pillars of a cathedral”, the granite formation Half Dome and the famous falls, he transferred Yosemite from state to federal control to protect it from over-grazing and logging.

The move represented a major victory for Muir, the driving force behind the creation of the USA’s national park system and founder of the Sierra Club, the precursor of Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups. But it was also the first official recognition that, as the country transformed itself into an economic powerhouse, a balance had to be struck between harnessing and protecting its natural resources.

Today, 100 years after his death, Muir is widely honoured in the US. Parks, mountains, streams, and beaches have all been named after him. In Scotland, and particularly in his home town of Dunbar, his fame has grown steadily over the last few years, with the John Muir Trust playing its part in raising awareness of his contribution. In the rest of the UK, however, he is virtually unknown. Yet never has the tension Muir highlighted between progress and preservation been more relevant, more complex or more difficult to resolve.

With climate change wreaking havoc on our coastal defences and a series of oil spills and the Fukushima nuclear disaster destroying natural habitats, the impact of industrialisation on environment is never far from our minds. In Scotland, the debate is complicated by the fact that the drive towards renewables, seen as the eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, is itself the source of rancour, with vast wind farms springing up in some of our most remote and previously unspoiled landscapes. But there is also a tension between preserving wildernesses and encouraging people to get out and enjoy them. One of the ironies of Muir’s life is that, once a true wilderness, Yosemite now attracts four million visitors a year, with their cars and their litter, a state of affairs brought about at least in part by his promotion of its beauty and its grandeur. Closer to home, new by-laws have had to be introduced to restrict wild camping on the east side of Loch Lomond, Scotland’s first National Park, in an attempt to tackle damage to the shore.

“Many of the threats to the natural world which have arisen in the last century could never have been imagined by Muir and his contemporaries: global warming, toxic waste, mass private transportation, pollution of the air and seas, destruction of the rain forests, industrial agriculture and mass production to support a runaway consumerist culture,” says Alan McCombes, spokesperson for the John Muir Trust. “At the same time, his philosophy of challenging the idea that nature is just a resource to be exploited for human progress has, if anything, been underlined by what’s happening, so perhaps we are more aware that nature hasn’t been given the respect it deserves.”

Even so, in a world in which rural communities are struggling for housing and job opportunities, is it always feasible, or desirable, to stand in the way of progress or economic growth? The centenary of Muir’s death is to be marked throughout this year with a festival of events in April including a street party in his home town, the launch of the 130-mile John Muir Way, a walking and cycle path linking Dunbar and Helensburgh, and a fireworks display at Loch Lomond. That his legacy deserves to be celebrated is beyond doubt - but is his broad position on the environment tenable in the 21st Century?

Muir may well have been unable to foresee many of the threats that would face the world after his death, but he was no stranger to striking a limited compromise between progress and preservation. Indeed, despite some people’s perception of him as a fundamentalist opposed to any kind of intervention, he had first-hand experience of man’s occasional need to tamper with nature.

As Professor Donald Worster points out in his book A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir, during the years he lived “wild”, Muir alternated between working as a shepherd and running a sawmill in Yosemite. Later, when he was married and running his father-in-law’s ranch, he poisoned rats to stop them destroying the crops. His successful management of the ranch made him wealthy and he enjoyed a lifestyle far removed from the popular image of him as an ascetic wanderer.

Far from one-dimensional, Muir was a complex and pragmatic character: a lover of nature with a talent for inventing; a man who craved isolation, but missed the company of friends; a rationalist, who nevertheless, saw the natural world as testament to God’s greatness. According to Worster, the contradictions fundamental to Muir’s personality were formed as a boy living in Dunbar. The son of a fierce Presbyterian who saw any sort of recreational pursuit as a distraction from the Bible, Muir turned to nature as a means of escape. When the family moved to Wisconsin and joined the strict Disciples of Christ, Muir, aged 11, was forced to spend much of his time working on the farm.

Since formal education was disapproved of, Muir’s learning was patchy until he enrolled himself at the University of Wisconsin-Madison at 22. There, he displayed a talent for the sciences, but failed to gain a degree. After spending a few years wandering in the woods around Lake Huron in Canada, probably to avoid the draft, he moved to Indianapolis to work as a sawyer in a factory that made wagon wheels. It was there he had the accident that was to change his life. A tool which struck him in the eye left him temporarily blinded. When he finally regained his sight, he saw the world “in a new light” and pledged to follow his dream of exploration and the study of plants. He walked 1,000 miles from Indiana to Florida, almost dying of malaria, before setting sail for Cuba. On his return to the US, he headed for Yosemite, where he was to make his name.

Muir spent several years living in Yosemite. He designed a water-powered mill to chop up felled trees and built a log cabin, making regular excursions into the back country, carrying only the bare essentials and the essays of naturalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

He became renowned for his knowledge of Yosemite’s wildlife and for his theory that the valley had been formed by glaciation (which was controversial at the time). In the 1870s and 80s he also explored other areas including Alaska and wrote on the wildlife in Yosemite and elsewhere. In the course of his work, however, he became increasingly concerned at the damage being done to the environment by over-grazing and other commercial activities, and was instrumental in having it declared a National Park modelled on Yellowstone. He went on to found the Sierra Club, which led the fight to see the park transferred to federal control.

In 1896, Muir became friendly with fellow environmentalist Gifford Pinchot, the head of the United States Forest Service and an advocate of the sustainable use of natural resources for the benefit of the people. Soon they clashed over sheep grazing, which Muir opposed, and the movement split into two camps, the “preservationists” led by Muir and the “conservationists” by Pinchot.

The increasingly polarised debate was already attracting headlines when the issue of the Hetch Hetchy dam exploded on to the national consciousness. Worried about the rising demands of an expanding population, the Mayor of San Francisco commissioned studies which concluded that damming the Tuolomne River in the Hetch Hetchy valley in the north of the park to create a reservoir would be the best way to provide more drinking water, a move that was passed into law by Roosevelt’s successor Woodrow Wilson in 1913.

Muir died almost exactly a year later, still bitter over the decision. But within three years of his demise, the administration of Yosemite was transferred to the newly-formed National Park Service, which was the realisation of his ideas and work.

Muir is acclaimed in the US and yet his legacy is not straightforward. He and the Sierra Club encouraged visitors to Yosemite Valley, yet today it is swamped by tourists, leading one environmentalist to suggest Americans “love it to death”. Meanwhile, Hetch Hetchy, which was “spoiled” by human interference, is still attractive, attracts far fewer people and is marketed as an alternative to its overcrowded neighbour.

Here in Scotland, the John Muir Trust is struggling with similar conflicts. “We are aware we haven’t got the wildernesses that exist in parts of the US or Europe in the sense of pristine nature that has never been affected by human intervention,” says McCombes. “The landscape in the Highlands, while it has grandeur and magnificence, has nonetheless been degraded over the centuries: the forests destroyed for agriculture and house-building, the creation of large-scale sheep farms, and the extermination of swathes of nature by the Victorians to create sporting estates all having an impact.

“But at the same time we argue we do have extensive lands in the Highlands which maintain a wild character and cannot be compared to agricultural land, places like Cuillin or Knoydart or Cairngorm Plateau or Glen Affric, which are rugged, elemental, dangerous even in certain conditions, places which create a sense of isolation and human insignificance, and are an important part of our national identity. We stand for protecting that landscape.”

While recognising the need for the development of renewables to replace fossil fuels, the Trust opposes what McCombes calls “an anarchic free-for-all of multinational corporations who look upon what they see as empty landscapes of the Highlands as a resource to be exploited for money”.

He says: “We do support community-scale wind projects that are about generating energy for the benefit of the local community. We only object to a very small minority of wind farm applications where they affect wild land. We believe industrial-scale wind farms are damaging in our view to ecology as well as the landscape.

“If multinational corporations were building super quarries or open-cast mines across the Highlands at the pace they are building wind farms, there would be a national uproar. People feel more fearful of challenging industrial-scale wind farms, but they don’t exist to save the planet, they exist to make money for their shareholders.”

Like Muir, the Trust believes it is slowly winning the government over to its point of view, with serious consideration currently being given to the adoption of a Scottish Natural Heritage map charting four million acres of “wild” land into planning guidelines. Not every environmentalist supports the move. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland has warned the map could lead to mountain areas be­coming “islands” surrounded by wind farms on nearby land not designated as “wild”.

But the John Muir Trust backs it as a means of affording Scotland’s most remote places - including Cape Wrath, Jura, Lochnagar, Merrick and Schiehallion - greater protection. “If the map was to be adopted, then it would mean a presumption against large-scale development on wild land unless there were compelling reasons in its favour,” says McCombes.

“That would unclog the planning system which is flooded by speculative applications by energy corporations and landowners. They would know they would be unlikely to be accepted on ‘wild’ land. 
That would be a really positive development in a year when we are celebrating John Muir’s achievements and legacy.” «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1