Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, California, 1903

Underwood & Underwood

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, California, 1903

The right-wing effort to privatize or obliterate many of the institutions of our public life—from public education to public broadcasting to public libraries to public health care—includes, not surprisingly, an unrelenting attack on a particularly distinctive tradition: the vast complex of public lands that date back more than a century and constitute an essential part of our national character. Donald Trump dramatically shrank the size of two newly created national monuments (Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah) to allow more oil and gas drilling; his administration has also opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the oil industry in a particularly spectacular act of vandalism now being challenged in court. The GOP platform in recent years has called for either privatizing public lands or handing them over to state governments, which are, especially in the West, typically dominated by the resource extraction industries.

John Taliaferro’s Grinnell and John Clayton’s Natural Rivals tell the story of the birth of this remarkable experiment. It’s a story Americans need to know and appreciate. Urban and suburban dwellers often know only about the national parks, which are a fairly small subset of the public lands archipelago. The much larger lands of the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are sometimes less charismatic, but they are at least as ecologically important and often just as beautiful. I’ve spent much of my life sharing a property boundary with the Forest Service, but I knew little of the complex behind-the-scenes machinations and the public appeals that produced this unlikely wonder. I’m struck, reading these accounts, how useful the history is for the present moment. They prompt the important recollection that Americans have at times demanded that our prosperity protect the public good, not just private interests.

George Bird Grinnell, one of the most prominent early American conservationists, is one of those figures who remind us that nineteenth-century America was a fairly small place, especially at its upper reaches. A descendant of settlers who came over on the Mayflower, Grinnell grew up on an estate in what is now upper Manhattan, tutored by the widow of John James Audubon. After a sojourn at Yale, he traveled west to help a professor with geological research and immediately ran into Buffalo Bill Cody, the most famous plainsman of his day. Stopping in Salt Lake City, he met Brigham Young and “flirted with twenty-two [of his] daughters in a box at the theatre.” He became, among other things, a magazine writer and editor, and when young Teddy Roosevelt didn’t like a review of one of his books that Grinnell had written, the future president stormed red-faced into his office at Forest and Stream in New Yorkbut Grinnell won him over, and soon he and TR were friends and co-conspirators.

Grinnell made it West just in time to watch one era fade into another. In 1872, at the age of twenty-two, he and a fellow Scroll and Key man from Yale took the train to Nebraska (the golden spike finishing the Transcontinental Railroad had been driven three years earlier). They traveled in “the most luxurious fashion”—Horace Clark, president of the Union Pacific railroad (and not coincidentally son-in-law of Cornelius Vanderbilt), had provided them with free sleeping car passes. Alighting in Plum Creek, they joined what might be best described as an early experiment in cultural tourism, paying a guide to take them on a buffalo hunt with the bow-wielding Pawnee. Though the tribe had been confined to a reservation for more than a decade, they were let out twice a year to hunt, and in this case nearly the entire four-thousand-person band was ranged with their horses along the Platte. Grinnell described the scene many times over the years, always evocatively:

Among the numberless bluffs that rise one after another like the waves of a tossing sea, the buffaloes can be seen by thousands; some peacefully reposing on the rich bottoms, others feeding on the short nutritious grass that clothes the hillsides…. Here were eight hundred warriors, stark naked, and mounted on naked animals…. Among all these men there was not a gun nor a pistol, nor any indication that they had ever met with the white men…. Like an arrow each horse darted forward. Now all restraint was removed…. What had been only a wild gallop became a mad race.

Grinnell joined in the action, killing a buffalo himself (with a gun). “I marvel at his monstrous size and vast strength,” he wrote, “and admire his massive horns and hoofs, which shine like polished ebony, and his shaggy head with its impenetrable shield of hair, hide and bone.” The hunt, writes John Taliaferro,

proved to be the most momentous, the most defining experience of Grinnell’s eighty-eight years on earth. It was mythic; it was ecstatic. He was not the same afterward, and in the midst of it, he surely sensed that it might not repeat itself.

Indeed, in his first account of the hunt, he wrote of the buffalo, “their days are numbered, and unless some action on this subject is speedily taken…these shaggy brown beasts, these cattle upon a thousand hills, will ere long be among the things of the past.”


Grinnell may have called the Indians he accompanied “barbarians,” but he was clear who was at fault for the vast herd’s demise. The Pawnee, he reported, would eat “every ounce” of the kill, and “what is not eaten while fresh will be jerked and thus preserved for consumption during the winter,” a drain on the herd easily replenished by reproduction. By contrast, “a party of white hunters had they the same opportunity” would have “left all but enough for one day’s use to be devoured by the wolves or to rot upon the prairie.”

Grinnell would spend much of his life defending both wildlife and Native Americans (though as was perhaps to be expected in that paternalistic and racist age, his advocacy on behalf of the continent’s original inhabitants was a mixed blessing). He founded the Audubon Society, and saw it grow to three hundred chapters within a year; and with Roosevelt he started the Boone and Crockett Club, which attempted with some success to turn hunting from a market-driven plunder into a more sporting pursuit. Perhaps his greatest legacy is Glacier National Park in Montana, which he did more than anyone else to help protect, and where Mt. Grinnell now looks down on Grinnell Glacier. By the time of his last trips, in the 1920s, it was no longer the wild place he’d first encountered. As he wrote to the soon-to-be-famous young conservationist Aldo Leopold, “While I have never regretted what I did in this matter because of the pleasure those parks give to a vast multitude of people, still the territory that I used to love and travel through is now ruined for my purposes.”

The clash between use and preservation defined the relationship between two even more important figures of this period, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot. Or at least that’s the traditional reading, challenged to some degree by John Clayton in Natural Rivals.

The first half of this somewhat awkwardly arranged volume more or less tells the standard story, one that environmentalists have repeated around campfires for generations until it’s become gospel truth. It features Muir as the prophetic man of nature; fleeing a Wisconsin frontier household stifled by a particularly cruel Presbyterianism, he heads out into the healing wilderness. His trek from Louisville to Cedar Key in Florida—which he would later chronicle in the magical book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf—helped strip away the last vestiges of his anthropocentrism (by the end he’s cheering on alligators who get the occasional bite of man “by way of dainty”), and from there he voyaged to California, ending up in the Sierra Nevada. There, in his “Range of Light,” he established a euphoric grammar and vocabulary of wilderness for all the generations to follow; we see the world in no small part through Muir’s eyes, and it is a great change from earlier times, when most of what counted was utilitarian exploitation of the landscape. “Everything is flowing—going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water,” he wrote. “Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches; the air in majestic floods carrying minerals, plant leaves, seeds, spores, with streams of music and fragrance.”

But that exploitation did not disappear simply because of Muir’s ecstasies, and in the traditional telling its chief spokesman was Pinchot. A less romantic figure than Muir, he was by background much more like Grinnell: the child of wealthy Manhattanites, he attended Exeter and Yale (though he was Skull and Bones, not Scroll and Key) before taking up forestry in a systematic way. He studied silviculture in Europe, and then was hired by Frederick Law Olmsted (as I said, nineteenth-century America was a small town) to take charge of the forests surrounding George Vanderbilt’s vast Biltmore estate in the hills near Asheville. But Pinchot always had his eye on bigger forests—at first he hoped to be hired to manage New York State’s new Adirondack Park, but since the state legislature banned all logging on public lands, it turned out there was little to manage. Instead, it would be the new federal lands that came his way, and his destiny was to create the US Forest Service and to try to turn forestry into a profession like law or medicine.


So in the traditional picture, Muir stood for the wild and Pinchot the managed, and their fight came to a head at Hetch Hetchy, the smaller Yosemite valley that the federal government eventually allowed San Francisco to turn into a reservoir. The picture is not inaccurate, but it’s definitely incomplete, and thus the second half of Clayton’s book sheds valuable new light. As he points out, before there could be a dispute over how best to use public lands, there had to be public lands, and during the 1890s Muir and Pinchot worked together to do something quite remarkable.

Until that point, the federal government had basically been in the business of giving land away (after, of course, taking it from its first owners). Homesteading drove America’s western expansion as pioneers were granted land lot by lot across the continent. And much larger giveaways to the railroad barons and other industrial interests helped spur the pell-mell development of the American interior.

But by the latter part of the nineteenth century, that pattern began bumping up against some stubborn realities. One was sublime: as settlers pushed into more remote areas, they kept encountering places that seemed almost too magnificent simply to subdue. Yosemite and Yellowstone were early examples, but there were more: the redwood groves in northern California, Crater Lake in Oregon, the Grand Canyon. Another reality was utilitarian: there were real fears that unmanaged logging would cause the country to run out of wood, which was a crucial resource not only for energy but also for railroad ties, telegraph poles, and the beams that kept the ceilings of coal mines from caving in.

There was an emerging ecological understanding, too: ever since George Perkins Marsh had published Man and Nature in 1864, it had been slowly dawning on people that unrestricted tree-cutting was leaving no forest to hold back water, leading to spring floods and summer droughts. (The Adirondacks were protected in no small part because important downstate interests feared that clear-cutting near its headwaters would eventually silt up the Hudson and the Erie Canal.)

All of this argued for beginning to “reserve” land that would otherwise have been given away, and so in the course of a very few years something profound happened. “Somehow,” Clayton writes, “the notion of public lands became an American hallmark.” And he attributes much of the “somehow” to the “cooperative competition” of Muir and Pinchot.

TR would eventually set aside some of the most transcendent landscapes in America, but it was under his predecessors—Cleveland and McKinley—that many of the crucial precedents were set. And both Muir and Pinchot understood that if they were to win congressional support for withholding land from private ownership (something the various railroad, logging, and mining interests, not to mention poor settlers still streaming west, mostly opposed), it would require making sure that public lands were wisely administered in ways that would clearly contribute to American economic growth.

The commission trying to shepherd the necessary legislation through Washington needed Pinchot’s planning but also Muir’s pen. As Clayton notes, “Muir’s essays from 1897 sound as if they have an unstated dual byline: Muir’s rhetorical gifts are applied to Pinchot’s ideas.” For instance, in an issue of the San Francisco–based Mining and Scientific Press, Muir argued that “Uncle Sam is trying to have his forests—what is left of them—at the same time trying to find out how best they can be put to use forever for the benefit of miners, farmers, lumbermen, and people in general.” He told an Oregon newspaper that “the forests must be made to yield a perennial supply of timber, without being destroyed or injuriously affecting the rainfall, thus securing all the benefits of a forest, and at the same time a good supply of timber.”

Congress acted, the public lands began to accumulate, and over time the differences in emphasis between Muir and Pinchot came to the fore. In practical terms, the division was often solved by protecting the most scenic and beloved places as parks and, later, wildernesses (Muir founded the Sierra Club, which did much to defend those spots). Meanwhile, the great bulk of the land was turned over to the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, which tended to be captured to one extent or another by the industries (mining, grazing, logging) they served. Still, the BLM lands and the National Forests remained public, and that kept them in the arena of argument and adjustment, with an ongoing balance between use and preservation. Over recent decades, in fact, the pendulum seemed to be swinging a little more in Muir’s direction. I remember talking with Mike Dombeck, the chief of the Forest Service under President Clinton, who said that the most important economic use of much of the land under his jurisdiction was as a buffer to filter and clean water.

Now, obviously, we are moving very fast and very hard in the opposite direction, and we are doing it at precisely the wrong time. The Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park has melted to a slushy shadow of its former grandeur (indeed it is almost certain that the park will need a new name in a few decades’ time). But despite that reality, the Obama administration and now, much more dramatically, the current regime have given the fossil fuel industry carte blanche on our public lands. A great deal of the land where bison once roamed is now given over to drilling rigs and pipelines; were America’s public lands a country of their own, they would be the fifth-biggest carbon producer on earth, trailing only the US as a whole, China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. It’s bad enough that Exxon et al. are using their own real estate to destabilize the planet—that they are drilling the property of the American people is particular lunacy.

And it’s a lunacy that’s spreading. The president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has insisted, like the opponents of Muir and Pinchot in the 1890s, that the vast reserves of public land in the Amazon are an obstacle to economic growth and must be opened to commercial exploitation. As rates of deforestation have begun to soar, he has cheered the process on, arguing with Trumpian logic that if Brazil doesn’t destroy its rainforests, someone else will. “Brazil is like a virgin that every pervert from the outside lusts for,” he explained. Bolsonaro’s rhetorical attacks on setting aside land for indigenous people let landowners know they had little to fear if they broke the country’s forestry laws—and the rainforest fires that have fouled the air of Brazil’s big cities were an entirely predictable result.

Against the Republican desire to privatize America’s public land, a new and strong Democratic emphasis on protecting it has emerged. Most of the presidential candidates have signed on to the idea first put forward by Bernie Sanders and Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon to bar oil and gas drilling on public lands; among the major contenders, Elizabeth Warren has produced the most comprehensive plan for public lands. It deems the 25 percent of America in public hands an “irreplaceable resource,” and pledges to generate much of the country’s renewable energy from these lands—not, one assumes, by tapping the hot water beneath Old Faithful; care will still need to be taken to protect these landscapes from the lesser damage renewables can inflict. She also promises to restart some version of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, employing 10,000 young people and veterans to get to work on the backlog of deferred maintenance on trails and campsites.

And, interestingly, Warren would commit to “meaningfully incorporat[ing]…tribal stakeholders in the management of public lands.” This recognition that America’s public lands once belonged to the original Americans is welcome; in other parts of the world, there have been some moves to restore indigenous people to their traditional roles as caretakers of these landscapes. The journalist and activist Julian Brave NoiseCat, for instance, has written powerfully about the increased role of First Nations people in guarding the British Columbia landscape. “As a much older nation,” one leader explains, “we have to show Canada how to manage these resources.”

That a quarter of our nation remains, at least nominally, in public hands is a great potential asset at a time of ecological crisis and economic inequality. Men like Muir and Pinchot were far from perfect—among other things, they had at best a romantic and at worst a starkly racist view of Native Americans. But their combination of idealism and realism delivered us a great gift. May we make the best use of it, even (or especially) when that best use is to leave it alone.