John Muir's legacy challenged

Yesterday's Los Angeles Times article touched a few nerves in the conservation community, to put it mildly. UCLA Professor Jon Christensen opined that John Muir is no longer relevant.


But the criticisms Christensen applies to Muir could just as well be applied to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers. These "old white men"  owned slaves, mistreated women and would fail to withstand scrutiny under so many of today's social norms. We have not, however, removed them from their rightful place in our history as leaders and visionaries. Nor should we. We have found a way to honor their contributions, while acknowledging that they were also reflections and products of the times in which they lived.

The legacy of our founding fathers endures and even thrives, in large part because we've been able to teach American history in a way that puts their lives and their achievements into context.

That's what history teachers should do. That's their job.

John Muir is by most accounts the world's most significant conservationist. He taught us the value of the natural world when it was a largely unknown concept and he pioneered environmental advocacy in the political arena. By suggesting "Muir's legacy has to go ...It's just not useful anymore.", Christensen has abdicated his role as a teacher.

Christensen says he was only trying to start a conversation. His point is that the conservation movement has moved far, very far, beyond preserving national parks such as Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. He knows that Muir's conservation legacy has little resonated little with young people and nonwhite ethnic groups in today's America. His preservationist vision was without peer in the late 19th century but it failed to include even urban parks, much less the effects of toxic chemicals or the prospect of global warming.

So to a large degree Jon Christensen is right. But he's a history teacher. It's his job to teach history in a way that is  useful. It's his job to make John Muir relevant in today's America.

John Muir, like George Washington, helped to shape the America we know today. We can acknowledge their shortcomings, but should still honor, respect and learn from the legacy they have given us.