In June, 1894—125 years ago—the naturalist John Muir wrote to a young friend, “You are choosing the right way into the woods… I only regret I cannot join you in your walks.” Muir, who is known for protecting Yosemite National Park and co-founding the Sierra Club, was primarily an evangelist for nature, seeking to convert people to spend more time in glorious natural environments. When the young man followed his advice, Muir responded, “Happy man. Never will you regret a single day spent thus… You have a grand future before you, and a grand present.”
Muir’s young correspondent was Gifford Pinchot, who would go on to found the U.S. Forest Service and advise his close friend, President Theodore Roosevelt, on conservation policy. Pinchot’s way into the woods was different than Muir’s, and for the past century, many historians have seen them as rivals, even enemies.
Muir has come to embody preservation, the idea that we should leave some stretches of nature unsullied by human change. Pinchot stands for conservation, the sustainable use of natural resources such as timber. Although both approaches stand in opposition to wanton exploitation for short-term gain, they differ on whether natural resources and humans are jointly part of a system that needs effective management, or whether nature is a holistic wonder that should be separate from human depravity.
The philosophies famously clashed over Hetch Hetchy, a dam proposed inside Yosemite in the early 1900s. To Pinchot, its provision of drinking water to San Francisco made it good conservation, the “greatest good for the greatest number in the long run,” as he was fond of saying. To Muir, it would devalue natural conditions in a national park.
\Muir lost that battle, and died a year later, but his disciples used Hetch Hetchy to inspire a crusade. They kept reservoirs and other such developments out of national parks, and eventually designated wilderness areas to be “untrammeled by man.” The efforts were worthy, but the preservationist rhetoric around them has obscured a key historical fact: Muir and Pinchot were friends first.
In the 1890s, Muir and Pinchot regularly exchanged warm letters. Pinchot, in his twenties, admired Muir’s outdoor adventures, his nature-infused spirituality, and the moral weight of his commitment to wild places. Muir, in his fifties, admired Pinchot’s boundless energy, his devotion to the knowledge and profession of forestry, and his interest in the political work that could protect forested land.
They first met in 1893, at a dinner in a Pinchot family mansion on New York City’s Gramercy Park, where Muir charmed his wealthy patrons with stories of Alaska. But their second in-person meeting, in Montana in 1896, proved especially auspicious.
It came at a time of crisis. Most “public land” at the time was simply waiting to be homesteaded or otherwise given away. It wasn’t regulated or managed. And thus its resources were rapaciously logged, dammed, drilled, and mined. As the frontier closed, Progressives wanted to set aside “forest reserves,” but these reserves lacked vision, authority, and budgets.
When Muir, Pinchot, and other members of a blue-ribbon commission visited Lake McDonald—now a centerpiece of Glacier National Park, but then just another stretch of the public domain—they could easily agree that it was a special place. To avoid commoditization by logging markets, it should be held permanently by the government. But the commission’s real work was in figuring out how such public lands should be managed—and then swaying the public to this new philosophy.
Here was where the friendship of Muir and Pinchot, and the combination of their contrasting talents, shaped America’s environmental history. Pinchot the manager established the conservation-based principles to allow use of these lands—but regulated. And Muir the storyteller embraced these conservationist ideals as consistent with his preservationist goals. He wrote eloquent essays that stirred the public to support Pinchot’s forestry vision.
The result was the idea of multiple-use public lands, which undergirds today’s U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Thanks in part to the Muir-Pinchot alliance, we now have publicly-owned lands managed for diverse purposes: wilderness and reservoirs, hiking and logging, habitat and grazing, mountain-biking and snowmobiling.
Today we also have other challenges, from extremists seeking to tear down that public lands legacy, to climate change that threatens our management paradigms.
A major lesson of the Muir-Pinchot story is that to solve today’s challenges, we need more friendships like theirs. We need a marriage of morality and capability. We need a fresh, accessible story showing why we must take action, combined with a powerful, visionary management framework that will go beyond culture wars to lead to better outcomes on the ground.
John Clayton is the author of Natural Rivals: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and the Creation of America’s Public Lands, which will be published by Pegasus Books in August.