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"The battling philosophies around conservation that gave us the public lands we have today ⁠— and what we can learn from the debate.​" 

NPR's On Point

"sheds valuable new light... before there could be a dispute over how best to use public lands, there had to be public lands, and during the 1890s Muir and Pinchot worked together to do something quite remarkable."

Bill McKibben, New York Review of Books

"Mr. Clayton writes with clarity, passion and insight." 

Wall Street Journal

Cover of Natural Rivals by John Clayton

To obtain a review copy or press kit, please email the publisher.

Natural Rivals:
John Muir,
Gifford Pinchot, and the Creation of America's Public Lands

Paperback: November, 2020. Cloth: August, 2019

A dual biography of two of the most influential figures in America's natural history—and the surprising legacy left by their dueling philosophies.


John Muir, the most famous naturalist in American history, protected Yosemite, co-founded the Sierra Club, and is sometimes called the Father of the National Parks. A poor immigrant, self-taught, individualistic, and skeptical of institutions, his idealistic belief in the spiritual benefits of holistic natural systems led him to a philosophy of preserving wilderness unimpaired. Gifford Pinchot founded the U.S. Forest Service and advised his friend Theodore Roosevelt on environmental policy. Raised in wealth, educated in privilege, and interested in how institutions and community can overcome failures in individual virtue, Pinchot’s pragmatic belief in professional management led him to a philosophy of sustainably conserving natural resources.


When such rival approaches meet, what happens? For decades, the story of their relationship has been told as a split between the conservation and preservation philosophies, illustrated by the fight over a remote Yosemite valley called Hetch Hetchy. But a decade before that argument, Muir and Pinchot camped together alongside Montana’s jewel-like Lake McDonald, at the heart of a region not yet consecrated as Glacier National Park. At stake in 1896 was the new idea that some landscapes should be collectively, permanently owned by a democratic government. Although many people today think of public lands as an American birthright, their very existence was then in doubt. It took a collaboration between these two natural rivals to enshrine public lands in both governance and the popular imagination.


Natural Rivals examines a time of environmental threat and political dysfunction quite similar to today’s, and reveals the complex dynamic that solved the crisis and gave birth to our public lands legacy.

Interviews about Natural Rivals:

John spoke with Meghna Chakrabarti of NPR's On Point in August 2019. He spoke with Nelson King of "A Podcast Runs Through It" in March 2020. 

Praise for Natural Rivals:

"fascinating and compelling ... Clayton’s theory — the dynamic between the two men and their ability to come together from different backgrounds and philosophies to protect these special places through institutions that we now take for granted — is well-argued and supported by evidence and anecdotes in this engaging volume."

Erin Turner, Big Sky Journal

"So inspiring... I loved this book."

John Fugelsang

"Anyone interested in the history and concerned about the future of America’s public lands should read this provocative and well-written book."

National Parks Traveler

"Two key figures and the fight over how America’s public lands should be used."

ABC News Radio Perspective

"In Natural Rivals, Clayton sets straight this key story in environmental history."

Montana: The Magazine of Western History

"As Clayton writes, the 1897 act and Muir’s Atlantic and Harper’s pieces are as much a climax to the Muir-Pinchot story as Hetch Hetchy. Yet we tend to focus on the latter, the story that pits Muir and Pinchot against each other."

Humanities Magazine

"Two giants of environmental history worked to break the stalemate and reshaped America’s idea of its public lands."

The Mercury

"In “Natural Rivals,” John Clayton relates how... two giants of environmental history, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, worked to break [a] stalemate—in the process reshaping America’s idea of its public lands and perhaps even providing a model for how to confront our own impending climatic catastrophe." 

Gerard Helferich, Wall Street Journal

"John Clayton uses painstaking research and a clear, buoyant voice to scrub away the myth and.... to map the monumental scope of these men's work and their far-reaching impact on America's public lands, and its soul."

Adam Boehler, Montana Quarterly

"timely… populated with a number of fascinating figures… A substantial contribution to understanding our environmental past."

Kirkus Reviews

"Naturalist John Muir and U.S. Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot, usually portrayed as rigid symbols of warring preservation vs. conservation approaches to public-land management, in fact had a nuanced rivalry with hopeful ramifications for modern environmental issues, argues journalist Clayton in this hybrid biography-history."

Publishers Weekly

"smart and very readable... Clayton [is] surely the only person ever to compare Muir and Pinchot to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson... a story of big personalities and even bigger priorities" ​

Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Review

"the rivalry that shaped public lands policy" "Best biographies and memoirs of August"

"crisply written… vivid portraits... What makes their stories
especially compelling is their preservation versus conservation debate, which still rages as
environmentalists struggle to protect America’s natural resources."



ISBN: 978-1643136097 (pbk) or 978-1643130804  

Published by Pegasus Books

Natural Rivals

Natural Rivals

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