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The Fight Over Conservation And The 'Creation of America’s Public Lands'

The John Muir trail near the Nevada Falls, left, bears the imprints of thousands of hikers’ boots on Sept. 6, 1972. (William Straeter/AP)
The John Muir trail near the Nevada Falls, left, bears the imprints of thousands of hikers’ boots on Sept. 6, 1972. (William Straeter/AP)

Editor’s note: Just after broadcast, the Trump administration announced a broad set of changes to how the Endangered Species Act is enforced. Wildlife advocates warn that the changes will make it easier for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ignore imperiled species and their habitat.

More information here.

With Meghna Chakrabarti

The battling philosophies around conservation that gave us the public lands we have today ⁠— and what we can learn from the debate.


John Clayton, author, journalist and essayist. His new book is “Natural Rivals: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and the Creation of America’s Public Lands.” (@JohnClaytonMT)

Photographs From The Book

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “Natural Rivals” by John Clayton

From NATURAL RIVALS by John Clayton, published by Pegasus Books. Copyright © 2019 by John Clayton. Reprinted courtesy of Pegasus Books.

Wall Street Journal: “‘Natural Rivals’ Review: To Protect and Conserve” — “In 1896, the United States was suffering through one of the worst financial crises in its history. American society was bitterly divided, by region, party and class. At the same time, scientists were warning of looming ecological disaster in the nation’s forests, but politicians refused to act. In “Natural Rivals,” John Clayton relates how, against this backdrop, two giants of environmental history, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, worked to break the stalemate—in the process reshaping America’s idea of its public lands and perhaps even providing a model for how to confront our own impending climatic catastrophe.

“If the American environmental movement has a patron saint, he is John Muir. Naturalist, inventor, author, activist, wanderer, prophet, Muir is revered as the founding president of the Sierra Club and an early advocate for the national parks, especially Yosemite. Immigrating from Scotland as a boy in 1849, he grew up on the Wisconsin frontier, the son of an itinerant preacher, but rebelled against his father’s austere faith. ‘In Muir’s Christianity,’ Mr. Clayton writes, ‘nature was God, and God was nature. To the extent that people were abusing nature, we were abusing God. And to the extent that we alienated ourselves from nature, we alienated ourselves from God.’ If certain extraordinary natural landscapes could serve as agents of spiritual renewal, in Muir’s view, they deserved our protection.

“Gifford Pinchot is remembered as the father of the American conservation movement. In contrast to Muir, with his hardscrabble childhood, Pinchot was born, 27 years after Muir, the son of a prosperous New York City merchant and was educated at Phillips Exeter and Yale. He loved to hike and fish and camp, and when he was a teenager, he and his exacting father jointly decided that he would dedicate his life to protecting the country’s forests. Whereas Muir understood nature as a physical expression of the divine, Pinchot considered the natural world a source of wealth that, if managed wisely and distributed equitably, could improve people’s lives. Whereas Muir was a mystic and a prophet, Pinchot became a statesman and an administrator.”

National Parks Traveler: “Lessons From A Previous Environmental Catastrophe” — “In June of 1894—125 years ago—Sequoia National Park Superintendent James Parker journeyed northwards to inspect the Sierra Forest Reserve. This mountainous country (now called the Sierra National Forest) had been set aside 16 months previously to protect its watersheds from overgrazing by sheep and over-cutting by timber interests.

“Parker entered a disaster zone. Defying the new policy, sheep were everywhere—he estimated 500,000 of them on the forest as a whole. They had eaten so much grass that his packhorses couldn’t find enough for their daily rations.

“The forest’s condition was ‘about as bad as it possibly could be,’ Parker reported. Indeed, ‘were it not for the tall pine and tamarack trees, which the sheep cannot prey on, it might justly be termed a desert.’

“It was a classic tragedy of the commons. Before 1891, most of the public domain was only temporary—such lands weren’t ‘public’ so much as ‘not yet privatized.’ So they weren’t managed or regulated. They were a literal free-for-all where sheepherders, loggers, and other capitalists reaped the natural resources without owning the consequences, which included denuded meadows, clearcut hillsides, and vanishing streamflows.”

Grace Tatter produced this hour for broadcast.

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