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[woodcut of John Muir] John Muir Writings

The National Parks and Forest Reservations

by John Muir

(Proceedings of the Meeting of the Sierra Club Held November 23, 1895.)
Published in Sierra Club Bulletin, 1896.


The annual public meeting of the Sierra Club was held in the hall of the Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, on the evening of Saturday, November 23, 1895. The topic announced, “The National Parks and forest Reservations,” had brought together a large audience of members and friends of the Club.

Mr. Warren Olney, Vice-President, called the meeting to order, and introduced Professor Joseph LeConte as the “President of the Evening.” In turn, Professor LeConte offered remarks on the announced topic, and then introduced the main speaker, Sierra Club President, John Muir.

Mr. Muir then addressed the club as follows:


Sierra Club and Friends: —- When I was requested by the directors to address the Club on the parks and reservations of the Sierra, with reference to their preservation and management, I think I said truly that this part of the work of the Club dependent on the action of Congress was in great part lawyer’s work, and that Mr. Olney, our Vice-President, ought to do it. You know that I have not lagged behind in the work of exploring our grand wildernesses, and in calling everybody to come and enjoy the thousand blessings they have to offer. I have faithfully inspected gorges, glaciers, and forests, climbed mountains and trees, and lived with the wild animals, and, as best I could, I have talked and written about them, never sparing myself. but this it seems was not considered enough by the directors. More still was required of me. I must make speeches and lead in society affairs. this, as it appears to me, is not reasonable. This formal, legal, unwild work is out of my line, and if any harm should come to the woods from my awkward, unskillful handling of the subject this evening, then you must lay the blame where it belongs - lay it on our Vice-President, sitting at ease there on the front seat, seemingly unconscious of wrong. I proved over and over again that this speech belonged to him, but all my good arguments were lost; he remained as obstinately unchangeable and unpersuadable as a glacier or a Scotchman

When I realized that I must speak here to-night, I tried to prepare a compact address an hour or less in length, but the subject in my hands proved far too big. Try as I might, I could not prevent it from radiating out in a dozen different directions, which, if faithfully pursued, would have made a speech ten or twenty hours long, a thing not to be thought of in any formal city affair. So I laid down my pen in despair, and saw that I must simply trust to memory and say what I could in the measured time allowed me.

This last summer I wanted to go to Alaska to explore some fine busy glaciers that are working on the flanks of Mt. St. Elias and the mountains about Cook’s Inlet and Prince William’s Sound. But I could not get away early enough for such extended explorations as would be required there; and so I just rambled off for an easy six weeks’ saunter in the Sierra above Yosemite, and about the head-waters of the Tuolumne, and down the Grand Caņon of the Tuolumne to Hetch Hetchy and the sugar pine woods of the main forest belt. On this ramble I was careful to note the results of the four years of protection the region had enjoyed as a park under the care of the Federal Government, and I found them altogether delightful and encouraging. When I had last seen the Yosemite National Park region, the face of the landscape in general was broken and wasted, like a beautiful countenance destroyed by some dreadful disease. Now it is blooming again as one general garden, in which beauty for ashes has been granted in fine wild measure. The flowers and grasses are back again in their places as if they had never been away, and every tree in the park is waving its arms for joy. Only the few spots held as cattle ranches under private ownership continue to look frowzy and wasted; but the condition of even these has been greatly improved under protection from the sheep scourge. Lilies now swing and ring their bells around the margins of the forest meadows and along the banks of the streams throughout the lower and middle portions of the park. the broad tangles and beds of chaparral have put forth new shoots and leaves, and are now blooming again in all their shaggy beauty and fragrance. the open spaces on the slopes are covered with beds of gilias of many species and purple spraquea, monardella, etc.; while on the steeper slopes the driest friable soil, that was most deeply raked and dibbled by the hoofs of the sheep, has been replanted, mostly by a delicate species of gymnophytum, whose winged seeds were the first to reach those desolate places. soon, however, they will be followed by other plants to enrich the bloom; for in the work of beauty Nature never stops.

In the highlands of the park the tough sod of the glacier meadows was never wholly destroyed, but their delicate grasses were not allowed to bloom beneath the feet of the trampling sheep, and all the bright flowers that so charmingly enameled the close, smooth sod - gentians, daisies, ivesias, orthocarpus, bryanthus, etc. - vanished as if not a root or seed had been spared. this year, I am happy to saw, I found these blessed flowers blooming again in their places in all the fineness of wildness - three species of gentians, in patches acres in extent, blue as the sky, blending their celestial color with the purple panicles of the grasses, and the daisies and bossy, rosy spikes of the varied species of orthocarpus and bryanthus - nearly every trace of the sad sheep years of repression and destruction having vanished. Blessings on Uncle Sam’s blue-coats! In what we may call homeopathic doses, the quiet, orderly soldiers have done this fine job, without any apparent friction or weak noise, in the still calm way that the United States troops do their duty. Uncle Sam has only to say: “There is your duty,” and it is done. This makes me think of what Robert burns says about the effects of whisky. He says:

Take a Scotchman frae his hill,
Clap in his cheek a Highland gill,
Say, such is royal George’s will
     And there’s the foe -
He’ll have no thought but how to kill
     Twa at a blow.

So Uncle Sam’s soldiers, in attending to those marauding shepherd and their flocks, tried to gather in two at a blow. A very suggestive flock, not of sheep, but of shepherd and their dogs, was seen this summer crossing the Yosemite National Park. Nine Portuguese shepherds and eighteen shepherd dogs were marched across the park from the extreme northern boundary, across the Tuolumne Caņon and the rugged topography of the Merced basin to the southern boundary at Wawona, and presented as prisoners before Captain Rodgers, who had charge of the troop guarding the park. These shepherds submitted to being driven along over hill and dale day after day as peacefully as sheep, notwithstanding they had a little previously been boasting of their fighting qualities and the surprising excellence of their guns, and with what deadly effect they would use them if interfered with in their divine right of stealing pasturage. But when they were calmly confronted with a soldier, armed with the authority of the United States and a gun of much surer fire than theirs, they always behaved well, and became suddenly unbelligerent. Occasionally a flock would be found in some remote, hidden valley of the park, attended by three or four shepherds, so that a watch could be kept on the movements of the soldiers from the heights around the camp. but, sooner or later, they would be caught and made to obey the laws; - for every year the whole park is faithfully policed.

In my wanderings this summer I met small squads of mounted soldiers in all kinds of out-of-the-way places, fording roaring, bowlder-choked streams, crossing rugged caņons, ever alert and watchful; and knowing, as we do, the extreme roughness of the topography of the park in general, our thanks are due these quiet soldiers for unweariedly facing and overcoming every difficulty in the way of duty. And always it is refreshing to know that in our changeful Government there is one arm that is permanent and ever to be depended on.

The Yosemite National Park was made October 1, 1890. For many years I had been crying in the wilderness, “Save the forests!” but, so far as I know, nothing effective was done in the matter until shortly before the park was organized. In the summer of 1889, I took one of the editors of the Century Magazine out for a walk in Yosemite and in the woods and bowlder-choked caņons around it; and when we were camped one day at the Big Tuolumne Meadows, my friend said, “Where are all those wonderful flower gardens you write so much about?” And I had to confess - woe’s me! - that uncountable sheep had eaten and trampled them out of existence. then he said, “Can’t something be done to restore and preserve so wonderful a region as this? Surely the people of California are not going to allow these magnificent forests, on which the welfare of the whole State depends, to be destroyed?” Then a National Park was proposed, and I was requested to write some articles about the region to help call attention to it, while the Century was freely used for the same purpose, and every friend that could be found was called on to write or speak a good word for it. The California Academy of Sciences became interested, and began to work, and so did the State University. Even the soulless Southern Pacific R.R. Co., never counted on for anything good, helped nobly in pushing the bill for this park through Congress. Mr. Stow in particular charged our members of Congress that whatever they neglected they must see that the bill for a National Park around Yosemite Valley went through. And in a little over a year from the time of our first talk beside that Tuolumne camp-fire the bill organizing the park passed Congress, and a troop of cavalry was guarding it.

But no sooner were the boundaries of the park established, than interested parties began to try to break through them. Last winter a determined effort was made to have the area of the park cut down nearly one-half. But the Sierra Club and other good friends of the forests on both sides of the continent made a good defense, and to-day the original boundaries are still unbroken.

The battle we have fought, and are still fighting, for the forests is a part of the eternal conflict between right and wrong, and we cannot expect to see the end of it. I trust, however that our Club will not weary in this forest well-doing. The fight for the Yosemite Park and other forest parks and reserves is by no means over; nor would the fighting cease, however much the boundaries were contracted. Every good thing, great and small, needs defense. The smallest forest reserve, and the first I ever heard of, was in the Garden of Eden; and though its boundaries were drawn by the Lord, and embraced only one tree, yet even so moderate a reserve as this was attacked. And I doubt not, if only one of our grand trees in the Sierra were reserved as an example and type of all that is most noble and glorious in mountain trees, it would not be long before you would find a lumberman and a lawyer at the foot of it, eagerly proving by every law terrestrial and celestial that that tree must come down. So we must count on watching and striving for these trees, and should always be glad to find anything so surely good and noble to strive for.

The preservation of specimen sections of natural flora - bits of pure wildness - was a fond, favorite notion of mine long before I heard of national parks. When my father came from Scotland, he settled in a fine wild region in Wisconsin, beside a small glacier lake bordered with whit pond-lilies. And on the north side of the lake, just below our house, there was a carex meadow full of charming flowers—cypripediums, pogonias, calopogons, asters, goldenrods, etc.—and around the margin of the meadow many nooks rich in flowering ferns and heathworts. And when I was about to wander away on my long rambles’ I was sorry to leave that precious meadow unprotected; therefore, I said to my brother-in-law, who then owned it, “Sell me the forty acres of lake meadow, and keep it fenced, and never allow cattle or hogs to break into it, and I will gladly pay you whatever you say. I want to keep it untrampled for the sake of its ferns and flowers; and even if I should never see it again, the beauty of its lilies and orchids is so pressed into my mind I shall always enjoy looking back at them in imagination, even across seas and continents, and perhaps after I am dead.” But he regarded my plan as a sentimental dream wholly impracticable. The fence he said would surely be broken down sooner or later, and all the work would be in vain. Eighteen years later I found the deep-water pond lilies in fresh bloom, but the delicate garden-sod of the meadow was broken I up and trampled into black mire. On the same Wisconsin farm there was a small flowery, ferny bog that I also tried to save. It was less than half an acre in area, and I said, “Surely you can at least keep for me this little bog.” Yes, he would try. And when I had left home, and kept writing about it, he would say in reply, “Let your mind rest, my dear John; the mud hole is safe, and the frogs in it are singing right merrily.” But in less than twenty years the beauty of this little glacier-bog also was trampled away.

Next, I tried to save a quarter-section of the flower San Joaquin plain when it began to be plowed for farms; but this scheme also failed, as the fence around it could not be kept up without constant watching, night and day. For the same cause, I did not take up a timber claim in the sugar-pine woods. But now we have this magnificent park, with all the world interested in keeping it.

When I first saw Yosemite, and read the notices posted by the State Commissioners, forbidding the cutting or marring the beauty in any way of the trees and shrubs, etc., I said, “How fine it is that this grand valley has been made a park, for the enjoyment of all the world! Here we shall have a section of the wonderful flora of the mountains of California, with most of its wild inhabitants preserved, when all about it has been injured or destroyed.” But instead of enjoying special protection, on account of its marvelous grandeur, it has suffered special destruction, for lack of the extraordinary care that so much trampling travel in it required. Therefore, now, instead of being most preciously cared for as the finest of all the park-gardens, it looks like a frowzy, neglected backwoods pasture. The best meadows are enclosed for hay-fields by unsightly fences, and all the rest of the floor of the valley is given up to the destructive pasturage of horses belonging to campers and those kept for the use of tourists. Each year the number of campers increases, and of course, destructive trampling and hacking becomes heavier from season to season. Camping parties, on their arrival in the valley, are required to report to the Guardian, to register and have camp-grounds assigned to them, and their attention is called to the rules and regulations prohibiting the cutting of trees and underbrush, etc.; but as the Guardian has no power to enforce the rules — has not a single policeman under his orders, — they are of non-effect, or nearly so. Most campers and tourists appreciate their privileges, but some, I am sorry to say, need the services of a soldier as much as the sheep-owners who break over the boundaries of the park. Not a single horse or cow should be allowed to trample the Yosemite garden. It was given to the State for a higher use than pasturage. Hay and grain in abundance may be hauled into the valley and sold to the owners of saddle-trains and campers, at moderate prices, at stables and corrals provided by the Commission. Then, of course, every disfiguring fence would be useless, and the wild vegetation would be gradually restored.

Since the fires that formerly swept through the valley have been prevented, the underbrush requires much expensive attention, that will call for the services of a skilled landscape artist. the wasting banks of the river also require treatment of the same kind, and so, indeed, does the whole wasted floor of the valley. As far as the hotel and saddle-train service is concerned, little fault can be found; but good management of the valley in general by a Board of Commissioners appointed by the Governor, whole terms of office depend on ever-changing politics, must, I think, be always difficult or impossible as long as the people of California remain lukewarm and apathetic in the matter. The solution of the whole question, it seems to me, is recession of the valley to the Federal government, to form a part of the Yosemite National Park, which naturally it is. One management for both is enough; and management by the unchanging War Department must be better than State management, ever changing and wavering with the political pulse. Anyhow, people usually get what they deserve; and Californians can obtain immensely better results, even from a State Commission, if they really care enough. Golden Gate Park, under State Commissioners, is well managed. Emerson says: “Things refuse to be mismanaged long,” and now, when Yosemite affairs seem at their worst, there are hopeful signs in sight.

A landscape artist has lately made a complete topographical survey of the valley floor with reference to a general plan of treatment. This is a good beginning, and speaks well for the present managing board. To Commissioner Fields in particular I think the thanks of our Club are due for what he has done for the valley, and is doing. Years ago, in discussing Yosemite affairs, he said to me that he did not think any of the Commissioners were landscape artists, and that, so far as he was concerned, he would as soon try to make his own boots as to attempt to do the landscape work required in the valley. Unfortunately, his term of office expires in a few months; but I trust that the Governor will re-appoint him.

This year, nearly as many campers as tourists visited the valley, and their stay was much longer. It is encouraging to learn that so many of the young men and women growing up in California are going to the mountains every summer and becoming good mountaineers, and, of course, good defenders of the Sierra forests and of all the reviving beauty that belongs to them. For every one that I found mountaineering back of Yosemite in the High Sierra, ten years ago, I this year met more than a hundred. Many of these young mountaineers were girls, in parties of ten or fifteen, making bright pictures as they tramped merrily along through the forest aisles, with the sparkle and exhilaration of the mountains in their eyes — a fine, hopeful sign of the times.

How vividly my own first camping trip in the Sierra comes to mind! When I set out on the long excursion that led to California, I wandered, afoot and alone, from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico, with a plant-press on my back,holding an easy course southward, like the birds when they are going from winter to summer. Thus I made my way to the west coast of Florida.Thence I crossed the gulf to Cuba, and enjoyed the rich tropical flora there for a few months, intending to go from there to the north end of South America, and thence through the woods to the head-waters of the Amazon, and then float down that grand river to the ocean. But a lingering fever caught in the Florida swamps, compelled me to seek cooler climates, and I came here. All the world was before me, and every day was a holiday. I stopped one day in San Francisco, and then asked the nearest way out to the untrampled part of the country. “But where do you want to go?” asked the man to whom I had applied for this important information. “to any place that is wild,” I said. This reply startled him, and he seemed to fear I might be crazy, and that, therefore, the sooner I was got out of town the better; so he directed me to the Oakland Ferry. From East Oakland I started up the Santa Clara Valley on the first of April, after a wet winter. The warm sunny air was fairly throbbing with lark song, and the hills back of the cultivated fields were covered with bloom, making bright masses of color side by side and interblending, blue and purple and yellow, from many species of gilias, lupins, compositae, etc., now mostly lost. Of course, with such an advertisement of plant wealth I was soon on those hills, and the glowing days went by uncounted. Inquiring the way to Yosemite, I was directed through the Pacheco Pass, and from the summit of this pass I gained my first view of the Sierra, with its belts of forests and the great San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys. It was on one of those perfectly pure, rich, ripe days of California sun-gold, when distant views seemed as clear as near ones, and I have always thanked the Lord that I came here before the dust and smoke of civilization had dimmed the sky, and before the wild bloom had vanished from the plain.

Descending the pass, I waded out into the marvelous bloom of the San Joaquin when it was in its prime. It was all one sea of golden and purple bloom, so deep and dense that in walking through it you would press more than a hundred flowers at every step. In this flower-bed, five hundred miles long, during my first walk through it, I used to camp by just lying down wherever night overtook me, and the flowers closed over me as if I had sunk beneath the waters of a lake; the radiant heads of the compositae touching each other, ray to ray, shone above me like the thickest star-clusters of the sky; and, in the morning, I sometimes found plants that were new to me looking me in the face, so that my botanical studies would begin before I got up. Not even in Florida or Cuba had I seen anything half so glorious. But I must make haste to the forests. Crossing the San Joaquin at Hill’s Ferry, I followed the Merced into the Sierra foot-hills on my way to Yosemite, and at Coulterville was warned not to attempt to go to the Valley so early in the season, as the snow was ten feet deep on the mountains. But this news was only a joyful exhilaration, and I pushed on, my mind glowing with visions of the pine-trees I had heard of, ten feet in diameter, snow ten feet deep, and, beyond these riches, the Yosemite rocks and waterfalls. Of course, the trail was buried, but I found my way easily, holding a general easterly direction, and getting now and then from the top of some headland a glimpse of the Merced Caņon, which was my main guide.

At Crane Flat, I reached the main forest belt, and there for the first time I saw the giants of the Sierra woods in all their glory. sugar pines more than two hundred feet high, with their long arms outspread over the spiry silver firs and the yellow pine, libocedrus and Douglas spruce.

I began eagerly to sketch the noblest specimens, trying to draw every leaf and branch. this was in 1868. I was perfectly free; and I soon saw that it would be long ere I could get out of those woods, and as you know, I am not out of them yet. Then the sugar pine seemed to me the priest of the woods, ever addressing the surrounding trees, - - everybody that h as ears to hear — and blessing them. few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine-trees. Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts; and if people in general could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish.

It has been said over and over again, by those who know them best, that ours are the grandest as well as the most beautiful trees in the world. Once I was seated by a camp-fire on Mt. Shasta, in the main forest belt, with Asa Gray and Sir Joseph Hooker, who, as you know, has seen and studied all the great forests of the world, and I then asked him if he knew any coniferous forest that rivaled ours. He said, “No; in the beauty and grandeur of individual trees, and in number and variety of species, the forest of the Sierra surpasses all others.” In the forests of Switzerland which I saw a few years ago, and which are so carefully preserved and managed, it would be difficult to select a hundred of the largest trees that would equal in weight a single specimen of the largest of our sequoias, to say nothing of their kingly beauty and majesty. “They are,” as Hooker says, “the noblest of a noble race,” while the sugar pine is the king of pines, though no less than eighty species are known to science.

The Sierra forests are growing just where they do the most good and where their removal would be followed by the greatest number of evils. The welfare of the people in the valleys of California and the welfare of the trees on the mountains are so closely related that the farmers might say that oranges grow on pine-trees, and wheat, and grass.

Now any kind of forest on the flank of the Sierra would be of inestimable value as a cover for the irrigating streams. But in our forests we have not only a perfect cover, but also the most attractive and interesting trees in every way, and of the highest value, spiritual and material, so that even the angels of heaven might well be eager to come down and camp in their leafy temples.

But Professor Dudley has an address for this evening, and I fear I am taking his time.

PROFESSOR DUDLEY: I should be very glad to have you continue instead.

MR. MUIR: Mr. Camminetti said last winter that there were seventy-five actual farms included in the Yosemite National Park whose owners were all praying to have the boundaries so changed as to leave their farms out. but this is not so. Con the contrary, there is little or nothing in the park that can properly be called a farm, but only garden-patches, small hay-meadows, and cattle-ranches; and all the owners, as far as I know, are rejoicing in their protection from the sheep scourge.

The two Sequoia National Parks are also protected by a troop of cavalry; but the grand Sierra Forest Reservation, extending from the south boundary of the Yosemite Park to the Kern river, is not yet protected. Many Government notices were nailed on trees along the trails as warnings to trespassers; but as there was no one on the ground to enforce obedience to the rules, cattle and sheep-owners have paid little or no attention to them.

Now, Mr. Runcie, who is familiar with army affairs, and last summer spent some time with the troops guarding the sequoia parks, says that the troops stationed every summer in the sequoia parks could also effectually guard the great forest reserve at the same time, if only the military authority were extended over it. this we hope will be done. But we must remember that after all trespassers are kept off the parks and reservations and running fires prevented, much more will remain to be done. The underbrush and young trees will grow up as they are growing in Yosemite, and unless they are kept under control the danger from some chance fire, from lightning, if from no other source, will become greater from year to year. the larger trees will then be in danger. Forest management must be put on a rational, permanent scientific basis, as in every other civilized country.


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