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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Environmental Activists, Heroes, and Martyrs

John Muir

Conservation versus Preservation

Michael Turgeon was a 2016-2017 Environmental Ethics Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Any discussion of the history of environmental thought is incomplete without addressing the contributions of naturalist John Muir. Muir, who dons the back of California’s commemorative “state quarter” and has given his name to many mountains, trails, and parks all across the state, was perhaps America’s most historically influential advocate for its natural places. He dedicated his life to preserving places like Yosemite, and his efforts were largely successful. And by examining his life, we can see why his legacy was so profound.

Despite his impact in California, John Muir did not arrive in the state until he was almost 30. Muir was actually born in Dunbar, Scotland, in 1838, to parents that were devout Christians. Muir would carry a connection to the Scottish countryside throughout his life (and never lost his Scottish accent), but his family moved to Wisconsin when he was 11 years old, seeking a more austere brand of Christianity [1]. While Muir never abandoned his faith, it took a different form as he reached adulthood. He certainly cultivated a deeper connection to nature while studying at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (the same University that would later be home to Aldo Leopold); although he never earned a degree, he was fascinated by his studies in botany and geology, subjects that would be essential for his later writings [1]. Muir never had much of a distinct career plan, and instead spent most of his young adulthood going between jobs and immersing himself in nature as much as possible. However, after he nearly lost his sight in a factory accident in 1867, he took to nature with a newfound sense of purpose and conviction. And after a 1000 mile walk to the Florida Gulf Coast, he soon caught a ship to California.

John Muir spent the next decade of his life immersed in the wild, particularly in the Sierra Nevadas in California. Muir saw God in nature, and his Christian upbringing translated into a deeply spiritual connection to the places he loved. He started writing during this time, and his works would later captivate the nation and spread awareness of these sacred places. He finally returned to society at the age of 40, marrying and settling into a domestic life. He and his wife settled on his father-in-law’s fruit ranch in Martinez, California, which was extremely profitable and, over the next 10 years, made Muir a very rich man [2]. Having more than enough to provide for his family, Muir was able to focus on his writing and become a voice for political change.

Muir’s home in Martinez still stands today as a part of John Muir National Historic Site, and a glimpse inside the home also provides a glimpse inside his mind. You can see the desk where Muir would sit for hours every morning writing and refining his voice. His letters (always given the address “John Muir, Earth, Planet, Universe”) detail how he was often frustrated with his own writing ability, and how hard he worked to improve his vocabulary and articulation [3]. His grand bookcases are packed with his influences: Thoreau, Wordsworth, Humboldt, and Emerson (whom he met personally); Muir’s writings and philosophies fit right in line with America’s transcendentalist movement, and this is perhaps why his ideas resonated so strongly with the public [4].

As Muir grew older, his advocacy started translating into policy. Congress finally established Yosemite National Park in 1890, and Muir was instrumental in the formation of several other National Parks, including Sequoia and Grand Canyon. He soon co-founded the Sierra Club with the goal of furthering preservation and filling in the gaps left by government conservation work. And in 1903, president Theodore Roosevelt travelled to Yosemite to meet with Muir, in what is now seen as a seminal moment for American environmentalism [2].     


His famous photo alongside president Theodore Roosevelt atop Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park (above) perfectly represents how, thanks to figures like those two, a sense of environmentalism began to take root in the social and political consciousness of turn-of-the-century America. Roosevelt’s commitment to conservation was instrumental in saving America’s natural beauty in the face of a rapidly expanding and industrializing society. What is not shown in the iconic photo, though, is the quiet tension that persisted between two schools of thought within the environmentalist movement. In the framework of a philosophical debate, these schools of thought are aptly described as intrinsic and extrinsic environmentalism; however, in the historical context surrounding Muir and Roosevelt, the practical manifestation of these philosophies could be described as preservation and conservation [5]. Conservationists, like Roosevelt, wanted to keep Yosemite from development but open it to hunting and tourism. Preservationists, like Muir, wanted to keep Yosemite as pristine as when God created it. Muir saw the natural world as sacred and divine, and wanted to remove it from the corrupting hands of human society. However, when faced with a nation that needed building materials and clean drinking water, conservationism often won out. Many of Muir’s fights, like the foundation of the National Park Service, were only successful because a dollar sign could be applied to the outcome. Nature did not have a very strong voice on the floor of Congress.

In 1913, a year before Muir died of pneumonia, his final preservationist fight turned out to be a losing effort, as the Hetch Hetchy valley (which he described as more beautiful than the Yosemite valley) was dammed in order to provide drinking water for San Francisco. Proponents of the dam, such as influential Chief of the Forest Service Gifford Pinchot, argued that, in addition to the benefits of water and hydroelectric power, it would create a beautiful reservoir for visitors to enjoy. Muir was not persuaded, and fought against the death of this sacred place until the very end, when the project was put in motion by president Woodrow Wilson [1].

In the case of Hetch Hetchy, never have the two sides of this environmentalist debate been more distinct and never has the choice between them been less clear. The vibrant city of San Francisco as we know it today would not have been viable without the destruction of the Hetch Hetchy valley, and all the rich history, bountiful life, and sublime natural beauty it contained. Preservationists like John Muir saw the dam as a symbol of humanity’s selfishness and perceived superiority, while conservationists could see it as a necessary evil; the human spirit is indeed a special entity and worth promoting, even if some life and beauty is lost in the process.

What is important for both sides to recognize, though, is that America is a nation built on compromise, and progress is seldom linear. Perhaps when two sides pull equally hard in opposite directions, often the solution that emerges is the most elegant one. While much of the 20th century was dominated by the voices of development and expansion, the voice of preservation eventually found its way in the political sphere. Spurred by mid-century advocates like Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson who carried on Muir’s legacy, modern environmentalism has taken a preservationist bent, and president Barack Obama has expanded public protected land in America more than any other president [6]. John Muir opened the country’s eyes to the intrinsic value of nature, and while he was not always successful in his preservationist endeavors, he would be encouraged to know that, in many ways, he was just ahead of his time.


[1] Muir, John, and Terry Gifford. John Muir: His Life and Letters and Other Writings. London: Bâton Wicks, 1996. Print.

[2] Wood, Harold. "John Muir: A Brief Biography." John Muir: A Brief Biography. Sierra Club, n.d. Web.

[3] Ehrlich, Gretel. John Muir: Nature's Visionary. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2000. Print.

[4] Wood, Harold. "Radical Transcendentalism: Emerson, Muir and the Experience of Nature.” Sierra Club, 2006. Web.

[5] "Conservation vs. Preservation and the National Park Service." National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web.

[6] Eilperin, Juliet, and Brady Dennis. "With New Monuments in Nevada, Utah, Obama Adds to His Environmental Legacy." The Washington Post. WP Company, 28 Dec. 2016. Web.