Natural Rivals: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and the Creation of America's Public Lands
John Muir, the most famous naturalist in American history, protected Yosemite, co-founded the Sierra Club, and is sometimes called the Father of the National Parks. A poor immigrant, self-taught, individualistic, and skeptical of institutions, his idealistic belief in the spiritual benefits of holistic natural systems led him to a philosophy of preserving wilderness unimpaired.
Gifford Pinchot founded the U.S. Forest Service and advised his friend Theodore Roosevelt on environmental policy. Raised in wealth, educated in privilege, and interested in how institutions and community can overcome failures in individual virtue, Pinchot's pragmatic belief in professional management led him to a philosophy of sustainably conserving natural resources.
When these rivaling perspectives meet, what happens? For decades, the story of their relationship has been told as a split between the conservation and preservation philosophies, sparked by a proposal to dam a remote Yosemite valley called Hetch Hetchy. But a decade before that argument, Muir and Pinchot camped together alongside Montana's jewel-like Lake McDonald in, which was at the heart of a region not yet consecrated as Glacier National Park.
At stake in 1896 was the new idea that some landscapes should be collectively, permanently owned by a democratic government. Although many people today think of public lands as an American birthright, their very existence was then in doubt, and dependent on a merger of the talents of these two men. Natural Rivals examines a time of environmental threat and political dysfunction not unlike our own, and reveals the complex dynamic that gave birth to America's rich public lands legacy.
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Naturalist John Muir and U.S. Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot, usually portrayed as rigid symbols of warring preservation vs. conservation approaches to public-land management, in fact had a nuanced rivalry with hopeful ramifications for modern environmental issues, argues journalist Clayton in this hybrid biography-history.
A crisply written double biography. Clayton paints vivid portraits of each, with Muir as the bedraggled backwoods explorer whose storytelling could charm the rich and powerful into supporting his causes, while practically minded New Yorker Pinchot peddled science and profitability to win political backing for his schemes. What makes their stories especially compelling is their preservation versus conservation debate, which still rages.
Mr. Clayton writes with clarity, passion, and insight. This story is uneasily relevant to today...and may even provide a template for addressing climate change. We need our own John Muir and Gifford Pinchot.-- (08/02/2019)