John Muir and the National Parks

Earlier this week, the US celebrated its 242nd Independence Day, and I kind of… forgot about it. I live outside of the US, and I’ve never really been a super patriotic person anyways, at least not in terms of the flags and the songs and stuff like that. But there is one thing that makes me very proud to be American, and that’s our National Park system.

Yosemite Valley, lit not with fireworks, but with the late afternoon sun.

In the 19th century, white Americans were spreading west, pushing out indigenous peoples and using up natural resources. Artists, authors, and early activists began to express concern over this trend, and did their best to promote the idea of unspoiled wilderness over the notion that nature was something to be conquered. One of these advocates was John Muir.  

Muir was born in Scotland in 1838, and spent a lot of time exploring the local countryside and learning about natural history. When he was 11, his family immigrated to the US and settled in Wisconsin, where Muir continued to explore nature and casually studied botany. He moved from place to place within the US and Canada, tried all manner of jobs (and suffered an industrial accident that almost cost him a eye), and walked 1000 miles (1600 km) from Kentucky to Florida, before finally settling in California in 1868.

John Muir near Royal Arches in the Yosemite Valley. Photo from the NPS, via the Yosemite Conservancy.

In California, Muir explored Yosemite Valley and fell in love with the area. He built a small cabin next to Yosemite Creek and lived there for several years. While he was there, he climbed mountains, followed trails, documented plants (including the giant sequoia trees), encountered native wildlife, and became a proponent of the then-unpopular idea that the valley was carved out by glaciers (geologists at the time thought that the distinctive features of El Capitan and Half Dome were the result of volcanic activity). He visited several other natural areas in the west, going as far north as Mount Rainier and even Alaska, but he always returned to California. Yosemite was special.

Muir pushed and pushed and pushed for its protection, particularly after the Hetch Hetchy Valley (one over from Yosemite Valley) was dammed and flooded to create a water reservoir to supply the growing cities of California. He was one of many advocates who sought to protect Yosemite, and in 1864, President Abraham Lincoln assigned the land to the State of California. A few years later, President Ulysses Grant signed the law that officially created Yellowstone National Park in 1872. The rising wave of support for preserving natural beauty resulted in the creation of other national parks: Sequoia and Yosemite in 1890, and then Mount Rainier in 1899 and Crater Lake in 1902. In the early days, though, the parks were not fully under federal control, and many people continued to try to exploit the resources within the protected areas.

Muir with President Teddy Roosevelt on Glacier Point in front of Upper Yosemite Falls. Image by Underwood & Underwood, 1906.

Now with a national park to protect and call home, John Muir became a local icon. Visitors to Yosemite made efforts to meet with him. Perhaps the most important of Muir’s visitors was President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, who was himself a man of nature and a great supporter of the national parks. The two men camped in the backcountry of Yosemite on their own, and Muir showed Roosevelt “the real Yosemite” while informing him of the exploitation issues. Roosevelt was strongly affected by the experience, and continued to fight to establish and protect federal lands. He managed to get those early parks under federal control, and firmly established the purpose of the national parks via the arch over one of the entrances to Yellowstone, which simply reads: “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People”.

Finally President Woodrow Wilson officially created the National Park Service as part of the US Department of the Interior in 1916. Then President Franklin Roosevelt (a great admirer of his fifth cousin Teddy) consolidated all national parks, national monuments, and other established protected areas into the NPS in 1933. The national park idea caught on and spread around the world. Today in the US, there are 60 national parks (including the Grand Canyon, Denali, Acadia, the Everglades, the Smokey Mountains, the Tetons, Glacier, and Arches), 129 national monuments, 21 preserves, 52 historical parks, 14 seashores and lakeshores, approximately 12,250 miles (almost 20,000 km) of trails, and much more, all under federal protection.

Sunset over the Tetons and moonrise over Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park.

Yellowstone is famous for being the first national park, but it’s only the first in the US. The world’s oldest national park is actually Bogd Khan Uul in Mongolia, which was established in 1778 by members of the Ming Dynasty. But the concept of the national park was made famous by the US, and has since spread around the world. The next park to be established after Yellowstone was Australia’s Royal National Park near Sydney in 1879, followed by Banff in the Canadian Rockies in 1885. New Zealand was also early; Tongariro National Park was created in 1887 when the local Māori group Ngāti Tuwharetoa gave their sacred lands to the Crown for the purpose of preserving it. NZ is now home to 14 national parks covering almost 30% of the entire country. And of course I have to mention Kruger, South Africa’s first national park established in 1926 as a game reserve, which has since grown into one of the largest wildlife conservation areas in the world.

The Hooker Valley track in Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park in New Zealand, on a cloudy day.

I personally owe a lot to the world’s national parks (and to my family for getting me to them). I’ve been very fortunate to get to visit several of them, both within the US and abroad (especially here in NZ). Those visits have been hugely influential on my interests and values. So while I may have forgotten to celebrate July 4th, maybe I’ll celebrate August 25th instead – the date of the creation of the US National Park Service.

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the US national parks, I highly recommend checking out Ken Burns’ documentary series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. And if you can, visit them! Use the NPS site to find your park. You can also support the organization that John Muir founded to support his beloved Yosemite, and has now grown into a giant conservation advocacy group: the Sierra Club.