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Living and Writing in the Natural World

John Muir's Legacy: a history of the American environmental movement

The Father of the Environmental Movement

Part 1. The Battle for Hetch Hetchy, 1902-1913

John Muir came relatively late in life to what became, later, “the environmental cause.” Full of love though he was for the natural world, it was not until 1889, when he was 51 years old, that he was finally persuaded by one determined friend to seriously take up cudgels, and battle to protect and preserve his beloved realm. Prior to this, his abundant energy had simply been directed to other areas. During the 1870s he was exploring California’s Sierra Nevada and other wild areas; the 1880s saw him raising his family and working very hard at the Martinez orchard and ranch to secure their financial security.

To be sure, Muir’s journals reflect early and lasting disdain for “Lord Man” and the general assumption the natural world exists for his sake, particularly Lord Man's constant readiness to sacrifice Nature for monetary profit. Muir had groused for decades about the devastation wrought by sheep (“hooved locusts”) grazing in meadows of the High Sierra. He had penned a letter to the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin in 1875 protesting private ranchers claiming grazing rights for their stock in the Kings River Valley. In February of 1876 he had written an article in the Sacramento Record-Union proposing Federal control of Sierra Nevada forests, and in 1881 had cooperated in an unsuccessful attempt to expand the scope of the California state’s stewardship of Yosemite Valley and to create a “public park” in the region of the Kings and Kaweah rivers—an attempt which died in committee.

These limited forays notwithstanding, it is curious that Muir should hike the length and breadth of the Sierra Nevada throughout the 1870s, passing through countless overgrazed meadows and logged forests, and limit his actions to the modest efforts recounted above, especially considering his scathing criticism of “Lord Man’s” commercialism. Perhaps Muir’s upbringing in Wisconsin, where he actively participated in the clearing of woodlands into fields and the hunting of waterfowl for a decade, colored his response.

Still...Muir’s relative inaction for decades seems odd. Doubtless it reflects his deep dislike not just of the art of writing, but of public conflict as well. John Muir had a wide circle of friends, male and female, and was usually the center of attention in a gathering. But he was in his deepest heart a solitary, private person—reflected in his love of solo wilderness adventures.

Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of New York City’s new Century magazine, finally dragged Muir into decisive action. Johnson arrived in San Francisco in 1889 looking for articles about the West, especially about California, and especially by the John Muir that had piqued such interest with his writings in the 1870s—then disappeared from the public scene in the 1880s as he married and began his family.

Muir promptly invited Johnson to join him in a trek to Yosemite, then a state-controlled reserve covering only the Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant sequoias. There they were dismayed by the heavy hand of humans marring the valley. Traveling up to Tuolumne Meadows, it was no better. Everywhere the pristine beauty of the area was being industriously destroyed by commercial interests. Lord Man was transforming the Sierras for his own profit, and California’s state leaders were happy to let it happen.

Sitting around a campfire at Soda Springs on the edge of Tuolumne Meadows one warm evening, Johnson pushed Muir. It was possible to do something about the situation, he insisted. He had friends in Congress who would sponsor a bill to expand the current failing state-administered reserve to include a federal park encompassing the whole watershed draining into the valley, including Tuolumne Meadows through which the Tuolumne River flowed to the grand Hetch Hetchy valley, one of Muir’s favorite places in the Sierras. Would Muir contribute to the effort? Would Muir write two articles for Century Magazine, extolling the grandeur of the Yosemite region and the need to protect it before the onslaught of Lord Man?

Muir agreed with alacrity; he had met a man whose enthusiasms matched his own. Muir returned to San Francisco and persuaded William Keith to provide illustrations for the article. By the spring of 1890, the two articles were completed and sent to Johnson. While Johnson arranged for the introduction of the bill and the publication of the articles, Muir took off for his fourth trip to Alaska and his adventures on Muir Glacier. By the time he returned, the effort was picking up serious steam, and by year’s end, to Muir’s surprise, the bill was passed and Yosemite National Park came into existence (to complement the continuing California state reserve in the Valley and Mariposa Grove). Soon two more national parks were created: Sequoia and General Grant. Muir and Johnson had pioneered a wholly new phenomenon on the planet: environmental activism—and it had succeeded.

Johnson kept at Muir, who was increasingly receptive. You should create an organization to do more of this, he suggested. An organization of men and women who love the mountains and will fight to protect them from commercial exploitation. Muir knew many such people, throughout the nation but especially in the Bay Area. A year and a half later, in the spring of 1892, Muir and half a dozen friends founded the Sierra Club in the San Francisco office of attorney Warren Olney. Those present unanimously elected Muir its president, an office he held until his death 22 years later.

From its beginning, the Sierra Club actively encouraged the full participation of women—a highly unusual stance at that time. Club histories note that “women established themselves at once as active participants in the club’s activities.” Three women were among its charter members. The first club “High Trip” outing was into Tuolumne Meadows in 1901. Muir brought along his daughters Wanda and Helen, who were joined by many of their friends and other women.

Describing that initial outing in the Sierra Club Bulletin, writer and photographer Edward Parsons commented that many of those ascending Mt. Dana (an imposing 13,061 feet high) above Tuolumne Meadows were “Berkeley or Stanford girls,” whose “vigor and endurance were a revelation to all of us.” The 1904 outing had amongst its usual crowd of young women a close friend of Wanda Muir, Marion Randall, whose vitality and cheerfulness captivated Parsons; they were wed soon thereafter, and Marion Randall Parsons served as a Director of the Sierra Club from 1914 to 1938.

Another early participant of these outings was the young Chicago poet Harriet Monroe, founder of Poetry magazine, who recited a poem to the company on the 1904 outing, and wrote and produced a play performed at the 1908 outing. Indeed, the eighth president of the club was the California conservationist and educator Aurelia S. Harwood.

In the first decade after its 1892 founding the Sierra Club initiated several environmental campaigns and supported those of others. But it was not until the early years of the new century that they sallied forth to do battle against the greatest threat to ever confront the High Sierras: the determination of San Francisco’s elite to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley and create a reservoir of the Tuolumne River for the city’s exclusive use—within the new Yosemite National Park!

James Phelan was elected mayor of San Francisco in 1897, and high on his list of priorities was assuring that the city would have plenty of water to grow far into the future. He dreamed of San Francisco as a world-class city, rivaling New York, London, and Paris. For that the city needed a secure and ready source of water—lots of water. And since they lacked funds to pay for it, the source ideally must be free of private claims.

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) engineer John Lippincott pointed out to Phelan that the Tuolumne River was free of claims, surged year-long with snow-melt from the High Sierras, and was pushed all the way to the Bay Area by gravity. Best of all, the magnificent two-thousand-foot walls of the Hetch Hetchy valley seemed pre-ordained to anchor a dam for a magnificent reservoir. Neither the USGS nor Phelan were the least bit troubled by the minor fact that the valley was already part of a national park, and that the reservoir would flood a substantial part of the watershed inside the park.

Nor, being the sort of folks they were, were the mayor and the engineer aware that the great canyon of the Tuolumne, flowing turbulently from Tuolumne Meadows, was often visited by Muir, and that the Hetch Hetchy valley at the mouth of the canyon was a particular favorite Sierra spot of Muir’s, the subject of rapturous accolades in his journal and his public essays for over two decades.

Not that they would have cared a whit, had they known. San Francisco needed lots of water, and the Hetch Hetchy mouth of the Tuolumne canyon was the perfect spot to build a cheap, rock-solid dam. True, there were multiple other sources for the water that San Francisco desired. Many such had been identified and explored; this was publicly acknowledged. But none of the other already-identified sources were as cheap and dependable as a Hetch Hetchy dam and reservoir, which could as a bonus supply hydroelectric power.

In 1902 Lippincott filed a claim in the Department of the Interior for a permit to construct the dam at Hetch Hetchy, in the name of the city of San Francisco. Muir and the Sierra Club were alarmed, but not overly so. The claim was clearly and explicitly in violation of the Congressionally-mandated regulations protecting Yosemite National Park (and other national parks). Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, Ethan Hitchcock, did his duty and curtly denied the application, suggesting that the city turn instead to one of the numerous other sources already identified. Phelan and his crew re-applied twice, and were denied both times, the last in 1905.

End of story, Muir thought. He believed he had support in high places; President Roosevelt himself had spent several days with Muir in the park in spring of 1903. They camped at the Mariposa Grove, and then at Glacier Point above Yosemite valley, awakening to find four inches of snow on their blankets—at which Roosevelt had exclaimed “Bully!”

But then Hitchcock resigned as Interior Secretary in the spring of 1907, and was replaced by James Garfield, senator from Ohio and son of the assassinated President. Garfield soon announced he was opening hearings on the permit to dam Hetch Hetchy.

Now Muir and the Sierra Club were definitely alarmed. Muir wrote Roosevelt, suggesting that he instruct Garfield to do his job as Hitchcock had his. But Roosevelt was a lame-duck president in the summer of 1907, with little influence and less desire to initiate what could (and would) become a nasty fight. As the proposal advanced, Muir churned out letters and articles by the score. In Outlook magazine of fall 1907 he wrote of Hetch Hetchy that “everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”

In early 1908 Muir published a widely-disseminated Hetch Hetchy article in the Sierra Club Bulletin, drawn from his recent Yosemite book. “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the hand of man.”

Muir’s eloquence and similar activities of the Sierra Club were all for nought. The good burghers of San Francisco brought enormous political pressures to bear on Garfield and Roosevelt. In May of 1908, Garfield reversed Hitchcock’s former ruling on the matter, allowing San Francisco to tap the Tuolumne River for its water supply on two conditions. First, the citizens of San Francisco approve the funds to build the water system. And second, the actual dam at Hetch Hetchy not be built until, and if, the Tuolumne’s water at downstream Lake Eleanor were first depleted.

By now the 70-year-old Muir was exhausted and sick of the fight. As Roosevelt pointed out in a mollifying private letter to Muir, it would be a generation or more before Lake Eleanor was depleted. Another generation could then take up the battle anew, if needed. Wearily, Muir agreed that the fight seemed to be over, and persuaded himself that it would be far in the future before Lake Eleanor’s capacity was overdrawn—if ever.

In November of 1907 Roosevelt’s protege William Howard Taft was elected President, and was inaugurated in March of 1908. Taft appointed Seattle attorney Richard Ballinger as his Secretary of the Interior.

Then Phelan, still a force in San Francisco politics though no longer mayor, made a gamble. He persuaded the city leaders to request that Ballinger re-open the agreement, and change it to permit the city to immediately begin construction and utilization of a dam at Hetch Hetchy. San Francisco couldn’t wait a generation for its free, unlimited Sierra water.

Muir and most of his Sierra Club colleagues were furious. This was too much. At a pivotal meeting in the club’s headquarters, a battle group was assembled, consisting of Muir, attorney William Colby (Secretary of the club), the previously-mentioned Edward Parsons, and William Bade (professor of Old Testament at the Pacific Theological Seminary and editor of the club’s Bulletin). This group and those who flocked to the cause in 1908 created something unprecedented in American history: a nationwide, grassroots environmental campaign. The campaign mobilized nature-lovers across America—many of them converted to elements of Earth Wisdom by three decades of Muir’s writings.

Women in and out of the Sierra Club were particularly active in this new experiment in political discourse, a development that cost Muir some support among the male population. The movement was caricatured by opponents as consisting of “short-haired women and long-haired men,” an innuendo-laced charge that might today be equivalent to painting your opponents as perverts and hippies. A widely-disseminated cartoon caricatured Muir in a skirt wielding a broom in a vain attempt to sweep back Tuolumne River water.

Muir didn’t care. He had won the admiration of women throughout his life, and called on them as well as his male friends to help the cause. He sought and won the support of the influential network of Women’s Clubs in California. He persuaded Sierra Club member Harriet Monroe, by now a nationally prominent poet and scholar based in Chicago, to testify before the congressional committees that were holding hearings on the request.

The well-orchestrated outpouring of public support for preserving the integrity of Yosemite National Park surprised everyone, particularly Phelan and his party. Taft and Interior Secretary Ballinger were impressed. The latter asked the city of San Francisco to show cause why Hetch Hetchy should not be deleted outright from its petition for a municipal water supply. President Taft asked for a tour of Yosemite from Muir, who promptly agreed. Thus in October of 1909 Muir found himself hiking the valley and its surrounding heights with a second President (though this one did not camp overnight with him and awake covered by snow). A few weeks later Secretary Ballinger showed up, and Muir took him to Hetch Hetchy itself.

The congressional hearings dragged on throughout 1910 and 1911, the battle settling into a bitter stalemate. San Francisco’s brute political and financial sway could not be defeated, but neither could the new grassroots support pouring in to legislators from across the nation. The Hetch Hetchy defenders produced the first pamphlet containing a form letter for supporters to send to members of Congress—a tactic still in use a hundred years later. Even the resignation of Secretary Ballinger in March of 1911 due to the stress of fighting charges of corruption (later shown to be baseless, and politically motivated by Gifford Pinchot, Muir’s long-time opponent) did not change the deadlock.

The strain of the seemingly endless battle took a heavy toll on Muir. In April of 1911, about to turn 73 years of age, he decided to embark on a year-long tour to escape the stress, and realize his youthful ambition to see the tropical plants of the Amazon Basin. Against the pleas of his daughters, physicians, and colleagues, he persisted in his plans for the solitary journey. The death of his old Scot friend William Keith on the eve of his departure was a blow. Arriving in New York City, Muir picked up Robert Underwood Johnson and together they visited Washington, D.C. to lobby yet more for the Hetch Hetchy cause before Muir’s departure. As Muir related in a letter to his Sierra Club colleague William Colby:

“Had a long, hearty, telling talk with the President (Taft), three with Secretary (of Interior) Fisher, lunched with Champ Clark (Speaker of the House)...Saw lots of Senators and Representatives, and made an hour and a half speech on H.H. and parks at a grand dinner of the influential Boone and Crockett Club...Never imagined I could stand so much dining and late hours.”

After receiving an honorary degree from Yale and staying awhile with the widow and daughters of railroad magnate Edward Harriman, and withstanding John Burrough’s bellowed opinion that he was “gane gite, clean gite” for taking the journey alone, Muir finally set sail in August for Brazil. He soon realized his lifelong dream (at least since his thousand mile walk of four decades earlier), boating a thousand miles up the Amazon to Manaus, and wandering the flooded forest in search of the giant water lily Victoria regia (which, unlike the rare orchid Calypso in the bogs of southern Canada, he could not find). He did succeed, however, in tracking down forests of the two South American species in the Mesozoic genus Araucaria (in Brazil and Argentina) before steaming across the Atlantic to introduce himself to the baobab tree (Adansonia) and others in Africa. After a brief time in Europe, he returned home, and recuperated from the rigors of the journey during the spring and summer of 1912 with daughter Helen and her family in southern California.

When Woodrow Wilson defeated Taft and the resurgent “Bull Moose” Roosevelt in November of 1912, Muir and his colleagues were rightly apprehensive about the fate of Hetch Hetchy. Upon Wilson’s appointment of his new Secretary of the Interior, their worst fears were realized: Hetch Hetchy’s fate would be determined by Franklin Lane, former City Attorney of San Francisco, and bosom friend of James Phelan. Shortly after Wilson’s inauguration, the Raker Bill was introduced in Congress, which would allow San Francisco to immediately begin construction of a dam at Hetch Hetchy. Secretary Lane signaled his firm support for the bill.

In despair, Muir and his new grassroots environmental movement once again rallied opposition to the bill, joined by the editorial boards of New York Times, the Boston Transcript, the Louisville Courier-Journal, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, and numerous other newspapers. Even California’s Senator John Works opposed the dam, as did Helen Elliot, the president of the California Federation of Women’s clubs. Also joining the opposition to the dam were former Harvard president Charles Eliot, nature writer Enos Mills, and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., among many influential men and women nationwide.

The work of the nascent grassroots environmental movement was impressive, and represented a new chapter in American, indeed world, history. But it was not enough. President Wilson, Secretary Lane, and political machines of San Francisco and beyond saw that the votes were delivered. The Raker Bill passed the House in September, the Senate in December, and was signed into law by President Wilson on December 19, 1913.

In a year the magnificent Hetch Hetchy valley was being surveyed by San Francisco engineers, its towering trees felled, its limpid streams buried under huge mud piles.

And John Muir was dead.

Muir’s first biographer, Linnie Marsh Wolfe, voiced the common opinion of those closest to Muir: the exhausting and tragic battle for Hetch Hetchy had brought the robust mountaineer John Muir to a relatively early death in December of 1914, at age 76.

The dam was finished in 1923, and the valley at the mouth of Muir’s favorite Sierra canyon has been submerged under water ever since, the magical place of which he had written:

“Snatch a pan of bread and run to the Tuolumne. In whatever mood the lover of wildness enters the Canyon, he speedily yields to the spell of the falling, singing river, and listens and looks with ever-growing enthusiasm until all the world beside is forgotten…Through the canyon flows a river clear as crystal, bordered with trees, Cassiope, fairest of shrubs, and sunny meadows here and there. Nature’s best gardens are here in deepest repose, fountains of wild ever-playing water falling in every form—the endless song of Creation shaking the devout listener into newness of life. He who enters will hear a music which will never cease to vibrate in his life throughout all its blurring moil and soil.”

The battle for Hetch Hetchy was lost, and Muir was gone. But the struggle had created something that endured: the American environmental movement, which would grow and achieve notable successes in the ensuing century.

Next week: Early Victories 1960s, 1970s: Cleaning up America

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