John Muir Died 100 Years Ago

John Muir Died 100 Years Ago This Month: If John Muir were alive today...

The world's foremost preservationist would be a restorationist

John Muir died 100 years ago on Christmas Eve. His clear view forever changed the way we value the natural world - and it is a view that is as relevant today as it was on Christmas Eve 1914. Muir understood that the natural world not only needed to be protected from man's greedier instincts, but also that a new form of political activism would be required to do so.

If he were alive, John Muir would no doubt embrace today's environmental movement. Instead of only preserving what little of the Earth's landscapes are still untrammeled, he would also be leading the movement to restore what's been lost.

Surely at the top of his list would be Yosemite National Park's Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Muir is most associated with preserving Yosemite and creating the Sierra Club. But he is also largely responsible for America's extraordinary love affair with national parks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries - a model copied around the world, and now including places like Tanzania's Serengeti and Ecuador's Galapagos Islands.


A century after Muir's death most conservation activities involve restoration rather than preservation. Certainly Muir would champion the landmark federal laws, passed 40 years ago, to clean our air and our water, and to protect species driven to the brink of extinction, which provide the backbone of much of today's conservation agenda. Muir, of course, had no way to foresee it, but there is little doubt that he would join the epic battle to stop global warming by replacing fossil fuels with sustainable technologies and efficiency.

John Muir, however, ever since recovering from an industrial accident at 29 that had left him temporarily blind, was drawn particularly to large compelling landscapes. He would welcome our ongoing ambitious projects to restore Florida's Everglades and the Mississippi River Delta. Muir would also be pleased with the campaigns in his adopted California which have restored wetlands in the Central Valley and at Mono Lake, and improved river flows to sustain fisheries on the Trinity and San Joaquin Rivers, and in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

By a large measure, Muir would most enthusiastically embrace the campaign to restore Yosemite National Park's spectacular glacier carved Hetch Hetchy Valley.

In 1913, a year before Muir died, the decade long debate over Hetch Hetchy came to Washington DC. In spite of editorials in opposition from more than 200 newspapers nationwide, Congress passed the Raker Act, allowing San Francisco to clear-cut, dam and flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Muir would be pleased to know that Hetch Hetchy's misfortune changed history. In 1916 Congress, reflecting on the unprecedented groundswell of public opinion during the debate over the Raker Act, passed the National Park Service Act - a law intended to prevent any more such intrusions. Subsequently, proposals to build dams in Yellowstone in the 1920s and Grand Canyon in the 1950s were defeated.

This seminal moment in history has been described as "the birth of modern environmentalism" (historian Robert Righter) and the "defining struggle of the conservation movement" (Robert Redford).

Indeed, some good has come from the debacle a century ago that allowed Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley to be destroyed. But the 21st century is the age of restoration. Many of the most destructive dams across America are being removed.
Our mission at Restore Hetch Hetchy is to return the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park to its natural splendor ─ while continuing to meet the water and power needs of all communities that depend on the Tuolumne River.

Restoration of Hetch Hetchy will not only make Yosemite and our national park system whole once again, but it will also inspire restoration activities across America and around the world as we struggle to make our planet sustainable and livable.

We are pleased to know that John Muir's spirit is with us.

Spreck Rosekrans is Executive Director of Restore Hetch Hetchy