A dynamic examination that traces the lives of two of the most influential figures—and their dueling approaches—on America's natural landscape.
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.
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 (Wonderlandscape) in this hybrid biography-history. The first of the book's two parts begins with sketches of Muir, a writer and scientist best known for his role in the creation of Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Club, and Pinchot, who had a privileged upbringing and studied forestry, embraced a pragmatic attitude toward nature, and influenced President Theodore Roosevelt's environmentalism. Clayton details Muir and Pinchot's differing views on the controversial Hetch Hetchy dam in Yosemite, which, in a defeat for Muir, was built. In the book's second half, Clayton widens his scope, looking at how public lands became a uniquely "American hallmark." He posits that Muir and Pinchot's differing approaches, far from causing an irreparable rift, balanced each other out and nurtured the lasting "belief that an American landscape could be productively managed, through democratic processes, for the benefit of all." Readers will share Clayton's hope that a similar "marriage of morality and capability" can help solve today's most pressing issues.