This article is part of a new series called “Who Owns America’s Wilderness?”
On the morning of July 22, 2020, the Sierra Club’s executive director, Michael Brune, posted a reflection on his organization’s 128-year history. “As defenders of Black life pull down Confederate monuments across the country,” he wrote, “we must also take this moment to reexamine our past and our substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.”
Brune’s reexamination began with John Muir—the inveterate hiker and activist who founded the Sierra Club and was famous for his eloquent tributes to the Sierra Nevada, many of which were first published in The Atlantic. Though Muir is a renowned figure in the conservation movement, Brune wrote, he made derogatory statements about Black and Indigenous people that drew on racist stereotypes. He maintained friendships with other prominent conservationists well known for their racist beliefs. These and other long-ago words and actions, Brune argued, not only continue to alienate potential Sierra Club supporters but sustain a “dangerous idea” within the organization: “that exploring, enjoying, and protecting the outdoors can be separated from human affairs.”
Many within the Sierra Club applauded Brune’s statement. Michael Horn, a professor at California State University at Fullerton, wrote that although he had supported the Sierra Club as a member for most of the past 35 years, “as a Native American ecologist, I’ve often cringed while doing so.” Brune’s words, Horn added, were a first step toward meaningful organizational change: “Now the real work of the Sierra Club begins.”
Yet many others accused Brune of unfairly applying a “purity test” to Muir, or of “smearing a great individual via guilt by association.” The science-fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, a Sierra Club member and lifelong Sierra Nevada hiker, responded to Brune’s statement by declaring that Muir was not a racist, and that “indeed in the context of his time, he was a tolerant and generous figure, worthy of respect both then and now.”
In a narrow sense, Robinson is right: Muir’s generosity toward and reverence for the members of other species was remarkable, for his time and for ours. But his failures of imagination about the human species were both significant and all too common among conservationists of his time. And as Brune noted, their influence persists, and the resulting pessimism about humans’ capacity to contribute to conservation undermines the work of the Sierra Club and like-minded organizations worldwide. In reexamining the limitations of its icons, the conservation movement has a chance to broaden its own vision.
John Muir was born in 1838 and spent his first 11 years in Dunbar, on Scotland’s southeastern coast. His father, Daniel, was an evangelical Protestant, and in 1849, feeling called to proselytize, he moved the family to south-central Wisconsin.
According to the John Muir biographer Millie Stanley, who chronicled his Wisconsin years, young John was delighted by his new surroundings—the low, oak-covered hills, the marshes that bloomed with wildflowers each spring—but he had almost no time to enjoy them. Daniel kept his children busy with farm chores, and disobedience was severely punished: “I have good reason, as doubtless you know to hate the habit of child beating,” John wrote to a childhood friend decades later, “having seen and felt its effects in some of their worst form in my father’s house.”
In 1864, Muir moved to Canada and found work at a factory that made broom and rake handles. Three years later, while working at a carriage-parts factory in Indianapolis, he injured his eye with a file and was temporarily blinded. When he regained his sight several weeks later, he abandoned his industrial career, resolving instead to “get as near the heart of the world as I can.” He took the train south, and from Louisville, Kentucky, he set out—on foot—for the Gulf of Mexico.
The trip was formative. After walking hundreds of miles through a landscape transformed by bloodshed—“The traces of war are not only apparent on the broken fields, burnt fences, mills, and woods ruthlessly slaughtered, but also on the countenances of the people,” he wrote in his journal—Muir contracted malaria during his stay on Cedar Key, an island off the Gulf Coast of Florida, and cut short his walk to convalesce. Reflecting on the mosquitoes that carried the disease, and on his run-ins with alligators and spiky vegetation, he proposed the then-radical idea that the world was not created solely for humans’ benefit. “Nature’s object in making animals and plants might possibly be first of all the happiness of each one of them, not the creation of all for the happiness of one,” he mused.
Muir’s journal of the trip, published posthumously in 1916 as A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, is a remarkable account of a man coming to understand his place in the world. It is also disturbing to read, not only because of its racist language—which could conceivably be explained away as an artifact of his time and background—but because of an insensitivity that goes beyond language. “The negroes here have been well trained and are extremely polite,” he wrote upon arriving in Athens, Georgia. “When they come in sight of a white man on the road, off go their hats, even at a distance of forty or fifty yards.” Though Muir had suffered years of abuse from his father, he did not recognize the “polite” behavior of formerly enslaved people for what it surely was: fear.
“There’s this great irony,” says Cynthia Barnett, an environmental-journalism professor at the University of Florida who teaches Muir as part of an annual class field trip to the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. “During his walk to the Gulf, he develops his egalitarian philosophy of nature—while expressing prejudiced views of the Black people he meets.”
Once he’d recuperated from his illness, Muir left Florida and made his way to California by steamer, arriving in San Francisco in the spring of 1868. He immediately proceeded to the mountains, where he spent a delirious month in and around the recently established state park in the Yosemite Valley. For the rest of his life, Muir would be happiest in the Sierra Nevada, and his paeans to the range would become part of conservation scripture. “I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in ‘creation’s dawn,’” Muir reflected during one trip.
Muir spent most of the 1870s in the mountains, supporting himself with odd jobs and the occasional published essay. He had developed a national reputation for his writing by 1880, when he married Louisa Strentzel and became responsible for managing her family’s expansive fruit ranch east of the San Francisco Bay. (Strentzel, a skilled pianist, far preferred home to the mountains, but encouraged Muir’s adventures.) After several years of domestic life, he began to publicly campaign for Yosemite’s promotion from a state to a national park. When his brother moved from Wisconsin and took over the management of the Strentzel ranch, Muir happily dedicated himself to conservation causes, co-founding the Sierra Club in 1892.
Thanks in part to Muir’s advocacy, Yosemite was designated as a national park in 1890, but the valley was no new-made field; people had been living there for thousands of years. Though the park’s superintendent, A. E. Wood, stated in 1892 that the Miwok and Mono people had a “moral right” to continue hunting, gathering, and residing in the park, Muir disagreed. After encountering a group of Mono people on one of his hikes, he mused that they “seemed to have no right place in the landscape,” and expressed his disgust at the sight of their unwashed faces. (Muir frequently contrasted the “cleanliness” of nature with the dirtiness he perceived in humans and human societies: “A strangely dirty and irregular life these dark-eyed, dark-haired, half-happy savages lead in this clean wilderness,” he wrote in The Atlantic after another encounter with Native people in Yosemite.)
The historian Donald Worster points out that Muir struggled with his aversion. “It seems sad to feel such desperate repulsion from one’s fellow beings, however degraded,” Muir wrote at one point. But he seemed unaware of what was arguably the deeper insult: his claim that the people he met in Yosemite not only had “no place” in the landscape of their ancestors, but were soiling it with their presence. He didn’t see that the place he loved already had a human story, and that fully protecting it meant protecting that story too.
When Muir died, in 1914, at age 76, the Sierra Club had enrolled 1,000 members. By then, the group’s advocacy had contributed to the protection of Glacier, Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, and Devils Postpile as national parks and monuments; conserved coastal redwood groves in California; and laid the legislative groundwork for the agency that would become the National Park Service. Muir’s 1903 camping trip in Yosemite with President Theodore Roosevelt—during which the pair reportedly spent two long evenings interrupting each other around the campfire—had helped persuade Roosevelt to strengthen protections for Yosemite and create the dozens of national parks, wildlife refuges, and monuments that became part of his own conservation legacy.
Since Muir’s death, the Sierra Club has grown to 3.8 million members, and its mission has expanded as well. In the 1950s and ’60s, it blocked plans to build dams in Dinosaur National Monument and Grand Canyon National Park and a jetport in the Everglades. In the 1970s, it defended the Clean Air Act against the auto industry and helped get energy-conservation legislation passed by Congress. It has continued to support the establishment and expansion of new parks and wilderness areas, and worked to protect endangered species from extinction. Over the past decade, its “Beyond Coal” campaign has helped retire 339 aging domestic coal-fired power plants and accelerated the installation of new wind- and solar-power generation.
The Sierra Club, in short, has a great deal to be proud of, and without John Muir’s infectious appreciation of the mountains, there would likely be no Sierra Club. Yet Muir’s portrayal of the Sierra Nevada as a purifying refuge from civilization, combined with his obtuseness about so many of his fellow humans, created an opening within the conservation movement for even more virulent views. Muir’s ideas about the “cleanliness” of nature were embraced by notoriously racist contemporaries such as Madison Grant, whose circle of wealthy sportsmen sought to preserve the California redwoods as a sanctuary for the fair-skinned elite. The Sierra Club’s co-founder Joseph LeConte, a geologist fondly remembered by Muir for his “inspiring, uplifting, enlightening influence,” was an unambiguous white supremacist who spoke of the need to “preserve the blood purity of the higher race.”
Muir’s present-day defenders point out, correctly, that Muir never explicitly endorsed the noxious ideas of his friends and acquaintances. But he never condemned them, either, and his silence allowed them to spread. Many of Africa’s early parks and game reserves were created by colonial governments, some of which proceeded to forcibly evict “squatters” from places where they had lived for centuries or more—much as the creators of some of America’s national parks evicted Native peoples.
Well into the 20th century, many foreign conservationists working in Africa saw the continent’s landscape as Muir had seen Yosemite—as an extraordinary place meant to be visited by foreigners, not lived in by Africans. The German veterinarian and conservationist Bernhard Grzimek, the director of an influential 1959 documentary called Serengeti Shall Not Die, declared that “not even natives” should be permitted to live in a “primordial wilderness” like the Serengeti. In the 1950s and ’60s, representatives of the World Wildlife Fund in East Africa pushed for the exclusion of nomadic Maasai herders from national parks and reserves, shutting them out of traditional hunting and grazing territory. By the end of the 1960s, tensions between conservationists and the Maasai were so high that some Maasai reacted to a new park proposal by slaughtering rhinos in protest. (Though many conservationists in Africa and elsewhere have since developed and supported innovative strategies for conserving both landscapes and human livelihoods, serious conflicts between parks and people persist.)
In 1968, at the invitation of then–Sierra Club Executive Director David Brower, the Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich and his wife Anne, a frequent collaborator, co-wrote a book on the perils of human population growth that became both a best seller and a lasting metaphor: The Population Bomb. “The story in the UDCs [underdeveloped countries] is depressingly the same everywhere—people want large families,” they wrote in the book’s first edition. “They want families of a size that will keep the population growing.”
On this point, the Ehrlichs were wrong in much the same way that Muir was wrong, and that the conservation movement is often wrong: While their commitment to conservation made them unusually alert to the complexities of other species, they were inattentive to the complexities of their own. In the Ehrlichs’ case, their sweeping statement has been contradicted over the past half century by the results of voluntary family-planning programs, which have reduced birth rates and improved the overall health of women and children worldwide—especially when combined with greater access to education for girls.
In a recent interview, Paul Ehrlich acknowledged the book’s oversights. “The thing we know works best is improving gender equity and racial equity,” he told me. “If you want to do something about population, give full rights and opportunities to women, including access to abortion.” Ehrlich also wishes that the book had emphasized the need to reduce not only the overall number of humans but the rate of resource consumption by the rich. Fear that untamable reproductive urges among the poor are fueling a human population “bomb” remains widespread among conservationists, however, and in 2004 it helped motivate an attempted takeover of the Sierra Club’s board by a slate of anti-immigration candidates.
Surely, Muir is not responsible for the positions of people born decades after his death. But whenever present-day conservationists make dangerously simplistic generalizations about their fellow humans—or, worse, about particular subsets of their fellow humans—Muir’s is one of the voices that echoes back.
The Sierra Club is not the only conservation group wrestling with the influence of its past on its present. In late July, the National Audubon Society published a story by the historian Gregory Nobles about John James Audubon, the adventurer and artist whose masterwork, The Birds of America, inspired the founders of the Audubon Society. As Nobles pointed out, Audubon opposed the abolition of slavery and, for a time, was a slaveholder himself. In an accompanying commentary, Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold committed to organizational reforms, observing that “questions of birds and conservation and questions of racial equity are not separate, though they’ve been treated that way for far too long.” (As one example, Yarnold cited the experience of a New York City Audubon board member, Christian Cooper, who was threatened in a racist incident in Central Park last spring.)
But the Sierra Club’s July statement, with its linkage of the words and ideas of Muir and his contemporaries to the persistent notion “that exploring, enjoying, and protecting the outdoors can be separated from human affairs,” is perhaps the farthest-reaching of its kind. The organization is spending $5 million this year—and plans to spend more in the years to come—on reforms ranging from new hiring practices to new investments in environmental-justice work. “We’re being as detailed and strategic about that as we are about the work it takes to close a coal plant,” Brune, the executive director, told me.
Conservation is, after all, accomplished by humans, and a movement that includes more of us will be more successful. That may seem obvious, but given the pernicious ideas planted by Muir and others, it’s worth repeating. Certainly, large parks and reserves with few permanent residents will continue to be part of conservation strategy, especially considering many species’ scarce and shrinking habitats. But the places such reserves aim to protect have human stories, too, and those stories should be respected in substantive ways—by recognizing Indigenous and other customary land rights, supporting neighboring communities in managing resources for the long term, and ensuring that visitors learn the full history of the local landscape. Such measures are not only ethical but good for conservation: Community-led conservation initiatives in Africa and elsewhere show that when the people who live near parks and reserves have some say in their management, they are far more likely to tolerate—and protect—the occasionally troublesome species that wander outside them.
More generally, the conservation movement can ally itself with social-justice groups in addressing the inequities underlying the exploitation of humans and habitats alike. And it can expand its reach by emphasizing that people of all descriptions can actively contribute to conservation—by, for example, finding creative ways to coexist with other species, pushing for legislation that protects clean air and water, and restoring habitats of many kinds in many places.
As the Sierra Club reevaluates Muir, it might take another look at a man long caricatured as Muir’s foil. Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, considered Muir a friend and mentor until the early 1900s, when the two clashed over San Francisco’s plans to build a dam and reservoir in the Hetch Hetchy Valley, in Yosemite National Park. Although Muir lost the battle over the dam—it was approved the year before his death and stands today—he won most of history’s sympathy, and Pinchot is usually remembered as a bureaucrat preoccupied with timber sales. In most histories of the conservation movement, Pinchot’s public quarrel with Muir is considered the archetypal cleavage between utilitarians and preservationists—between those who primarily want to maintain landscapes and species for people, and those who want to protect them from most human use. But the boundary between the camps is fuzzier than often portrayed, and Pinchot had a foot firmly in both. While he did treat forests like commodities early in his career, his utilitarianism was rooted in concern for the future, with the goal of “the greatest good, for the greatest number, for the longest run.” His views evolved, and by 1920, he was speaking of forests as a “living society of living beings” and decrying the cozy relationship between the Forest Service and the timber industry. In the 1930s, he became a committed internationalist, arguing that conservation and global peace were as interdependent as humans and the rest of life.
Pinchot was less quotable than Muir, but he was ultimately broader-minded, concerned with the well-being of all species and aware of humanity’s capacity to be both constructive and destructive; he argued that forests and other landscapes should be managed “for the benefit of all the people instead of merely for the profit of a few.” Along with Roosevelt, Grant, LeConte, and many other affluent intellectuals of his time, Pinchot was a supporter of eugenics, the practice of “improving” humanity through various controls on reproduction. Unlike them, he was outspoken in his condemnation of poverty—which he viewed as a kind of pollution that harmed all life.
Pinchot, in his own ways, was as wrongheaded as Muir; he’s no icon, either. But while Muir sought to escape into a largely illusory wilderness, Pinchot understood that there is no escape from the central dilemmas of conservation, and he kept battering away at them—as today’s conservationists must continue to do. Pinchot’s most valuable legacy, as his biographer Char Miller writes, lies in his “effort to reach an ever more complex understanding of the tangled relationship between humanity and the natural world in which it exists.”