The Future of our National Parks System

 

The current political administration in the United States has raised into question the future of our public lands. Given the continued discussion over the ownership of national parks and monuments, the below excerpt from Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change, is both timely and informative.

This faint old path isn’t on the brochure map, but it leads to a fine perch just the same. Moving past the car choreography and selfie poses at the popular Desert View area near the eastern border of Grand Canyon National Park, I find my way on a late afternoon.

Crumbling pavers end in a trace that weaves through rabbitbrush and juniper and over to a suitable rock, right on the abyss. No glance out there yet. I don’t want to risk vertigo until I’m settled. Then, with a beer and a bag of salt peanuts, I can drift out over two billion years of geology, a hundred centuries of human striving, and a timeless void.

Anywhere you pause along the hundreds of miles of edge brings dizzying contrast. The infinitesimal meets the cosmic, as a cliff swallow careens against far-off rock and sky. The immediate—check your foot-ing on that limestone grit, there’s a long fall pending—opens abruptly onto silent eons of cycle and revision. Another contrast: under a longer gaze the wild and timeless look of this panorama bears the lasting marks of recent human activity. They are the destinations of this book.

As we head into its second century, few would disagree that we want the park system to fulfill its mandate to preserve nature. “The core element of the national parks is that they are in the perpetuity business,” as Gary Machlis, science adviser to the director of the Park Service, told me. “The irony is that our mission is to preserve things in perpetuity, and we do it on an annual budget and a four-year presidential cycle.” The natural systems of the parks, he said, represent an island of stability—as long as we protect them and plan well for their future.

The centenary of the Park Service has just passed, along with some well-deserved national self-congratulations. Perhaps this would be a discreet time to say that the parks’ natural systems are, in the estimation of many scientists, falling apart. In that view all public lands need long-term life support, beginning as soon as we can pull it together. We’re on a precipice, both politically and biologically.

Read more from the author in a recent article, ‘At Bears Ears in Utah, Heated Politics and Precious Ruins,’ on the New York Times website, or check out his website to learn more.


On the Road to ESA: A Q&A with Case Studies in the Environment Section Editor Cynthia Wei

Cynthia Wei is a Section Editor for the Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation section of UC Press’s new peer-reviewed journal, Case Studies in the Environment, as well as Associate Director of Education at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), based in Annapolis, Maryland.

We caught up with Cynthia as she made her way to the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), held this year in Portland, Oregon.

Cynthia Wei, Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation Section Editor

Cynthia, not only are you a Section Editor for an environmental journal which takes a case study approach, but you also developed and lead SESYNC’s short course, Teaching Socio-Environmental Synthesis with Case Studies. What is your background and how did that lead to an interest in case studies?

Cynthia: My background is in animal behavior, and when I used to tell people about my research on honeybees and birds, I found it easy to engage with non-scientists about what I did. But inevitably, the conversation would circle around to the question: “So how does your work help humans?” With some degree of exasperation, I’d often shrug and say: “Why does everything have to be about humans?!” I would have a different response now as I’ve come to realize that the human dimension is inescapable; we are hard-pressed to think of an environmental issue, ecosystem, or species that is not influenced by humans in some substantive way. These days, my work focuses more on helping students to learn about the relationships between humans and nature, particularly through the use of environmental case studies in the classroom. For me, case studies are a natural fit for teaching in the environmental arena. Understanding and addressing environmental problems involves many complex, abstract theories and concepts, and case studies help students to learn these by providing detailed examples that tangibly illustrate these difficult ideas. Furthermore, the problems presented in cases are often very compelling to students.

Why are case studies important for ecology?

Cynthia: As an experimental biologist, as many ecologists are, the concept of publishing a case study was somewhat foreign to me, and the idea of publishing a single example of a phenomenon ran counter to my trained instincts (i.e. that’s an anecdote!) However, like natural history monographs, I think there is great value in publishing research-based, detailed descriptions of a single subject, event, or issue. Because environmental problems are often deeply complex and require a systems perspective, case studies illuminate the roles and relationships between various factors in a socio-environmental system or problem in a detailed, nuanced way. Thus, case studies that can illustrate the roles of ecological factors and their relationship to other factors in a system are important for helping us understand and address a particular environmental problem involving that system.

Would you encourage ecologists to submit their own case studies to Case Studies in the Environment?

Cynthia: Absolutely! In the section that I am responsible for (along with Martha Groom, University of Washington, and Tuyeni Mwampamba, UNAM) we have already published some interesting case studies, including material on Bosque Protector Cerro Blanco, a dry tropical forest reserve in Ecuador; on an Australian woodland rehabilitation project; and an analysis of a massive data set on human-bear conflicts in New Jersey; with additional case studies coming soon on an eco-hotel in Costa Rica and on environmental justice, indigenous peoples, and development in British Columbia. I would encourage any colleagues at ESA to talk with me about case studies (you can likely find me at the SESYNC booth in the exhibit hall), or to get in touch via the journal at cse@ucpress.edu.

 

Case Studies in the Environment is a journal of peer-reviewed case study articles, case study pedagogy articles, and a repository for editor-reviewed case study slides. The journal aims to inform faculty, students, educators, professionals, and policymakers on case studies and best practices in the environmental sciences and studies.

Through December 31, 2017, all Case Studies in the Environment content is available free. To learn more about the journal, including guidelines for prospective authors, please visit cse.ucpress.edu.

 


Our Most Precious Resource: A National Water Quality Month Reading List

August is National Water Quality Month, a time to reflect on what we are doing to both prevent water pollution and preserve water resources around the country. Check out the list below to learn more about water history, climate change, and the future of water in the western US.

The Atlas of Water: Mapping the World’s Most Critical Resource by Maggie Black

Using vivid graphics, maps, and charts, The Atlas of Water explores the complex human interaction with water around the world. This vibrant atlas addresses all the pressing issues concerning water, from water shortages and excessive demand, to dams, pollution, and privatization, all considered in terms of the growing threat of an increasingly unpredictable climate. It also outlines critical tools for managing water, providing safe access to water, and preserving the future of the world’s water supply.

 

Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner

In this incisive examination of lead poisoning during the past half century, Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner focus on one of the most contentious and bitter battles in the history of public health. Lead Wars details how the nature of the epidemic has changed and highlights the dilemmas public health agencies face today in terms of prevention strategies and chronic illness linked to low levels of toxic exposure. Including content about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Lead Wars chronicles the obstacles faced by public health workers in the conservative, pro-business, anti-regulatory climate that took off in the Reagan years and that stymied efforts to eliminate lead from the environments and the bodies of American children.

 

Water and Los Angeles: A Tale of Three Rivers, 1900-1941 by William Deverell and Tom Sitton

Los Angeles rose to significance in the first half of the twentieth century by way of its complex relationship to three rivers: the Los Angeles, the Owens, and the Colorado. The remarkable urban and suburban trajectory of southern California since then cannot be fully understood without reference to the ways in which each of these three river systems came to be connected to the future of the metropolitan region.

A free ebook version of this title is available through Luminos, University of California Press’s Open Access publishing program for monographs.

 

Blood and Water: The Indus River Basin in Modern History by David Gilmartin

The Indus basin was once an arid pastoral watershed, but by the second half of the twentieth century, it had become one of the world’s most heavily irrigated and populated river basins. Launched under British colonial rule in the nineteenth century, this irrigation project spurred political, social, and environmental transformations that continued after the 1947 creation of the new states of India and Pakistan. In this first large-scale environmental history of the region, David Gilmartin focuses on the changes that occurred in the basin as a result of the implementation of the world’s largest modern integrated irrigation system.

 

Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West by James Lawrence Powell

Where will the water come from to sustain the great desert cities of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix? In a provocative exploration of the past, present, and future of water in the West, James Lawrence Powell begins at Lake Powell, the vast reservoir that has become an emblem of this story. Writing for a wide audience, Powell shows us exactly why an urgent threat during the first half of the twenty-first century will come not from the rising of the seas but from the falling of the reservoirs.

 


A Yosemite National Park Reading List

On this day in 1864 President Lincoln signed a law leading to the protection of what we know today as Yosemite National Park. Dive deeper into the history of this iconic landscape with these books.

Yosemite: Art of an American Icon edited by Amy Scott

This lavishly illustrated volume offers a stunning new view of Yosemite’s visual history by presenting two hundred works of art together with provocative essays that explore the rich intersections between art and nature in this incomparable Sierra Nevada wilderness. Integrating the work of Native peoples, it provides the first inclusive view of the artists who helped create an icon of the American wilderness by featuring painting, photography, basketry, and other artworks from both well-known and little-studied artists from the nineteenth century to the present.

 

Glaciers of California: Modern Glaciers, Ice Age Glaciers, the Origen of Yosemite Valley, and a Glacier Tour in the Sierra Nevada by Bill Guyton

Bill Guyton summarizes the history of the discovery of Ice Age glaciation and modern-day glaciers in California, as well as the development of modern ideas about the state’s glacial history. He describes the controversy about the origin of Yosemite Valley and quotes from the colorful accounts of early mountain explorers such as John Muir, Josiah Whitney, and François Matthes.

 

Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West by Rebecca Solnit

In this foundational book of landscape theory and environmental thinking, Rebecca Solnit explores our national Eden and Armageddon and offers a pathbreaking history of the west, focusing on the relationship between culture and its implementation as politics. In a new preface, she considers the continuities and changes of these invisible wars in the context of our current climate change crisis, and reveals how the long arm of these histories continue to inspire her writing and hope.

The Mountains That Remade America: How Sierra Nevada Geology Impacts Modern Life by Craig H. Jones

This book combines geology with history to show how the particular forces and conditions that created the Sierra Nevada have effected broad outcomes and influenced daily life in the United States in the past and how they continue to do so today. Drawing connections between events in historical geology and contemporary society, Craig H. Jones makes geological science accessible and shows the vast impact this mountain range has had on the American West.

 

Uncertain Path: A Search for the Future of National Parks by William C. Tweed

Tweed, who worked among the Sierra Nevada’s big peaks and big trees for more than thirty years, has now hiked more than 200 miles along California’s John Muir Trail in a personal search for answers: How do we address the climate change we are seeing even now—in melting glaciers in Glacier National Park, changing rainy seasons on Mt Rainer, and more fire in the West’s iconic parks. Should we intervene where we can to preserve biodiversity? Should the parks merely become ecosystem museums that exhibit famous landscapes and species? Asking how we can make these magnificent parks relevant for the next generation, Tweed, through his journey, ultimately shows why we must do just that.


Tools of the Trade: Resources for Scientists

As part of our “Tools of the Trade” blog series, we’re highlighting resources for science scholars and educators to aid in your research, writing, and prep work this summer. Look no further for a refresher of methods that you can use in your own work or share with your students.

Ecosystem Overviews

Floodplains: Processes and Management for Ecosystem Services by Jeffrey J. Opperman, Peter B. Moyle, Eric W. Larsen, Joan L. Florsheim, and Amber D. Manfree

This book provides an overview of floodplains and their management in temperate regions. It synthesizes decades of research on floodplain ecosystems, explaining hydrologic, geomorphic, and ecological processes and how under appropriate management these processes can provide benefits to society ranging from healthy fish populations to flood-risk reduction.

 

Ecosystems of California by Harold Mooney and Erika Zavaleta

A comprehensive synthesis of our knowledge about this biologically diverse state, Ecosystems of California covers the state from oceans to mountaintops using multiple lenses: past and present, flora and fauna, aquatic and terrestrial, natural and managed. Edited by two esteemed ecosystem ecologists and with overviews by leading experts on each ecosystem, this definitive work will be indispensable for natural resource management and conservation professionals as well as for undergraduate or graduate students of California’s environment and curious naturalists.

Ecology of Freshwater and Estuarine Wetlands edited by Darold P. Batzer and Rebecca R. Sharitz

Ideally suited for wetlands ecology courses, Ecology of Freshwater and Estuarine Wetlands, Second Edition, includes updated content, enhanced images (many in color), and innovative pedagogical elements that guide students and interested readers through the current state of our wetlands. This second edition of this important and authoritative survey provides students and researchers with up-to-date and accessible information about the ecology of freshwater and estuarine wetlands.

Conservation and Resource Management

Reintroduction of Fish and Wildlife Populations edited by David S. Jachowski, Joshua J. Millspaugh, Paul L. Angermeier, and Rob Slotow

This book provides a practical step-by-step guide to successfully planning, implementing, and evaluating the reestablishment of animal populations in former habitats or their introduction in new environments. Covering a broad range of taxonomic groups, ecosystems, and global regions, this edited volume is an essential guide for academics, students, and professionals in natural resource management.

Biodiversity in a Changing Climate: Linking Science and Management in Conservation edited by Terry Louise Root, Kimberly R. Hall, Mark P. Herzog, and Christine A. Howell

Biodiversity in a Changing Climate promotes dialogue among scientists, decision makers, and managers who are grappling with climate-related threats to species and ecosystems in diverse forms. The book includes case studies and best practices used to address impacts related to climate change across a broad spectrum of species and habitats—from coastal krill and sea urchins to prairie grass and mountain bumblebees. Biodiversity and a Changing Climate will prove an indispensable guide to students, scientists, and professionals engaged in conservation and resource management.

Foundations of Wildlife Diseases by Richard G. Botzler and Richard N. Brown

This book is a comprehensive overview of the basic principles that govern the study of wildlife diseases. The authors include specific information on a wide array of infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, arthropods, fungi, protista, and helminths, as well as immunity to these agents. Supporting students, faculty, and researchers in areas related to wildlife management, biology, and veterinary sciences, this volume fills an important gap in wildlife disease resources, focusing on mammalian and avian wildlife while also considering reptiles and amphibians.


The Case for Case Studies

By Wil Burns, Editor-in-Chief of Case Studies in the Environment

What is a case study, and how can case studies positively impact critical thinking and knowledge acquisition, as well as inform research in academia and training in professional practice? In this post, Case Studies in the Environment Editor-in-Chief Wil Burns explains what case studies are, and how they can provide an important bridge to understanding important environmental issues.

What is a “Case Study?”

In its most distilled form, a “case study” involves investigation of “real-life phenomenon through detailed contextual analysis of a limited number of events or conditions, and their relationships.” The “case” may focus upon an individual, organization, event, or project, anchored in a specific time and place. Most cases are based on real events, or a plausible construction of events, and tell a story, often involving issues or conflicts which require resolution. They also frequently include central characters and quotations and dialogue. Often the objective of a case study approach is to develop a theory regarding the nature and causes of similarities between instances of a class of events. More broadly, case studies seek to illustrate broader, overarching principles or theses. In recent years, researchers have increasingly embraced the study method in recognition of the limitations of quantitative methods to provide in-depth and holistic explanations of social problems.

Case Studies in the Classroom

Case studies can play an extremely important role in the classroom. Research surveying faculty and student learning results associated with the use of case studies demonstrate significant increases in student critical thinking skills and knowledge acquisition, as well as enhanced ability to make connections between multiple content areas and to view issues from different perspectives. Case studies can also promote active learning, which has been proven to enhance learning outcomes. Case studies can help to facilitate learning by deductive learners by helping them to reason from examples, analogies, and models, as well as from basic principles.

In the specific context of environmental studies and science courses, case studies have proven to be a valuable component of teaching by fostering critical transdisciplinary perspectives conductive to addressing environmental issues. The case study method has also been employed in an effort to foster engaged learning in environmental studies and science courses by “flipping the curriculum.”

Case Studies in the “Real World”

Case studies are also a valuable tool for environmental practitioners. They can provide guideposts for best practices, as well as lessons learned by others in any given professional sector, including in the environmental arena. The case study method has proven to be an effective tool to assist environmental professional in developing effective recommendations and policy prescriptions. Also pertinent to the environmental sector, case study research can also help to identify relevant variables to facilitate subsequent statistical research. Moreover, case studies can be employed in organizations for training purposes to foster problem-based learning and the ability to formulate solutions.

Case Studies in the Environment

Case Studies in the Environment is a new online journal published by the University of California Press. It seeks to foster the development of a substantial compendium of case studies by the environmental academic and professional communities. The journal focuses on environmental cases studies in the following categories:

It is our hope that Case Studies in the Environment will help to develop a community of scholars and practitioners that can leverage the benefits of case studies on behalf of our efforts to combat some of the most imposing environmental issues of our time. Learn more at cse.ucpress.edu, or sign up for Case Studies in the Environment news alerts.

 


Earth Day and the Anthropocene

This post concludes our Earth Week blog series. Thank you for reading!

by Jason M. Kelly, editor of Rivers of the Anthropocene

On November 4, 2016, the Paris Climate Agreement went into effect. Signed and ratified by the vast majority of members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the agreement wasn’t perfect. But, it was an important step forward in mitigating the worst effects of climate change. Four days later, the United States elected a president who had previously claimed that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.

In the months that have followed, the new president and his administration have begun implementing a wholesale attack on climate science and environmental regulations. The new administration’s policies point to the close connections between society — politics, culture, and economy — and environmental systems. Rejecting scientific warnings, it has doubled down on its support of fossil fuel consumption and economic opportunism at the expense of the environment. Its justifications and appeals to the public — economic necessity, individual freedom, and nationalism — are framed through ideologies that have historical roots going back centuries. The actions that their policies enable will have environmental consequences that last far beyond the lifetimes of those currently serving in office.

The interrelations between society, culture, economy, politics, and environments have deep histories. In fact, to imagine sociocultural and geobiophysical systems as distinct entities would be a mistake; they are entangled. Historically, environmental contexts have played key roles in shaping sociocultural systems. And, humans have had greater or lesser impacts on their regional ecologies over tens of thousands of years through clear cutting, slash-and-burn agriculture, hunting and fishing, and flood control and irrigation systems.

Over the past several hundred years, the relationship between humans and their environments has intensified as human populations have grown. Consumption of resources, magnified by the energy unleashed by burning fossil fuels, has resulted in fundamental transformations of earth systems (e.g. carbon cycle, water cycle, nitrogen cycle). And, political contingencies, cultural beliefs, and economic desires have reinforced behaviors that continue to destabilize the planet’s systems.

Because humans have become such a powerful environmental force, a growing number of scientists have suggested that we have entered a new geological epoch — the Anthropocene. Humanity’s impact on the planet can be measured in sediments and ice cores. Its actions have entered the geological record.

Understanding the Anthropocene requires more than just researching the environmental effects of human actions however. As important is understanding the role that human systems play in shaping behaviors — for example, the ways that capitalism and imperialism have encouraged certain practices of resource extraction and modes of thinking. Doing so allows us to address more than just the consequences of human action. It helps us understand the root causes as well.

At its core then, research on the Anthropocene is focused on exploring the historical entanglements between sociocultural and geobiophysical systems. This necessitates multidisciplinarity — of scientists, social scientists, humanists, artists, policy makers, and community organizers working together to tackle environmental challenges in all of their complexities. This work includes descriptive and analytical approaches, but also public engagement meant to influence policy and public attitudes. In the current political context, this type of work is one important tool in mitigating the worst effects of climate change denial and attacks on environmental protections.


Jason M. Kelly is Director of the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute and Associate Professor of History at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.


A Right-Now Battle for the Future of America’s Public Lands

This post is part of our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Stephen Nash, author of Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change

America’s national park system is the most familiar component of our vast estate of federal public lands: forests and grasslands, wildlife refuges, millions of acres of rangelands. These landscapes all add up to more than a fourth of the U.S. national dirt. Earth Week 2017 finds the survival of their natural systems increasingly vulnerable, politically and biologically.

The plan long promoted by conservation biologists and environmentalists, and seriously contemplated by the federal government in the recent past, was to move toward connecting these lands to help ensure their protection from industrial exploitation and development pressures, and to enable species to adapt and migrate in the face of quickly arriving climate change.

But a powerful, well-funded political movement is pushing in the other direction: to atomize federal public lands, hand them over to the states, and privatize them. My book Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change details this conflict, its origins, and its political and ideological supporters, from ranchers to billionaires. The Trump administration has been both equivocal and non-vocal on this issue so far — hard to prophesy how this map will look on Earth Week 2018, and beyond.

With Grand Canyon National Park as the foreground example, we can also see the biological threats to the future of public lands: recurring waves of imported invasive species that disrupt ecosystems, a lengthening list of endangered species whose populations steadily diminish and, especially, climate change. These factors are already transforming public lands, including Grand Canyon.

Fortunately, natural scientists and their allies spend whole careers on research and field work to mitigate these losses and plan for a radically different climatic future. Their work, too, is embattled. Many of them will celebrate Earth Day around the U.S. this weekend by taking part in a March for Science. For public lands and for science both, we’ll see what direction the coming year takes…


Stephen Nash is the author of award-winning books on science and the environment, and his reporting has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, BioScience, Archaeology, and The New Republic. He is Visiting Senior Research Scholar at the University of Richmond


The Problem within Environmentalism

This post is part of our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Laura Watt, author of The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore

Earth Day is often celebrated with an iconic image of Earth as seen from space; against the black void, our curved home swimming with blue oceans and swirling with weather systems looks fragile and delicate. The message is unquestionably, don’t mess it up!

Inspirational as it is, this sort of image contributes to core problem within environmentalism—it perpetuates the notion that humans are somehow outside of nature, separate and distinct. It positions the natural world as observed from afar, at a great distance—a piece of gleaming treasure to be nestled in a velvet-lined box for safe keeping.

In contrast, my recent book The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore argues that we must consider natural and cultural elements of protected areas as essential components of whole landscapes, rather than as separate concerns diametrically opposed. Point Reyes is often heralded for its wild coastline, its plentiful bird and marine life, its winding trails through dappled forests and rolling grasslands. Yet much of what is perceived as wild nature is the product of centuries of human use and management. Like elsewhere across the Americas, Point Reyes was inhabited for centuries by native peoples, in this case several bands of coastal Miwok. Recent studies suggest extensive burning and other forms of indigenous vegetation management occurred over thousands of years. Since Mexican rancheros settled this part of California in the 1830s, the peninsula has been used extensively for raising cattle—drawn to the lush grasslands created and maintained by Miwok land management practices. Nearly two centuries of ranching has profoundly impacted the landscape, and kept the land open and relatively undeveloped, making it an attractive location for a national park unit. This natural landscape is full of the work of human hands.

And perhaps even more surprising, even our most urban landscapes are full of thriving nature. For example, Peter Alagona’s book After The Grizzly points out that a stable and growing population of the adorable, and formally endangered, San Joaquin Valley kit fox, for example, can be found in urban Bakersfield, even while the species is struggling in other, more “wild” parts of its range. Yet these city dwellers are invisible to most conservation efforts, except as a source of additional genetic diversity for their cousins living in nature reserves. Similar work documenting the habits of urban wildlife—a colleague recently explained how automatic cameras at Chicago intersections, intended to catch red-light runners, have revealed urban coyotes waiting for the light to change, having learned that it is easier to cross on the green—is forcing us to rethink our categories of natural and cultural as more organisms adapt themselves to “our” world.

John Muir famously described his beloved Sierra wildernesses as distant cathedrals where visitors should experience awe and wonder, which became the guiding vision for U.S. national parks. But have we listened solely to Muir for too long? Another voice deserving more attention is that of Aldo Leopold, whose pioneering advocacy for wilderness also wrote stressed the importance of re-establishing a personal and collaborative relationship with the natural world through working the land. For Leopold, admiring from afar or as an occasional visitor is not enough; we need to recognize our reliance on and co-existence with nature through living and working with it: “Conservation means harmony between men and land.” Point Reyes has long been ideally suited to be managed as a Leopoldian park, a place where the wild and the pastoral are not in competition but are complementary, thriving side by side. It provides an important reminder for Earth Day, that we are all in it together.


Laura Alice Watt is Professor of Environmental History and Policy at Sonoma State University.


The Mountains That Remade America

This is the first post in our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Craig Jones, author of The Mountains That Remade America: How Sierra Nevada Geology Impacts Modern Life

Earth Day falls the day after John Muir’s birthday, an apropos juxtaposition as Muir’s influence can be found in the concept of lobbying on behalf of the earth. Although Emerson and Thoreau promoted nature, theirs was an eastern nature that was recovering from settlement; Muir’s untamed western nature led him to a far more active role.

When John Muir began wandering the Sierra Nevada in 1868, its western foothills were already savaged by the Gold Rush. Forests were being felled for timber to support the deep mines in the Mother Lode and Comstock. Yet, almost peculiarly, the High Sierra where Muir wandered was free of settlements, and mines, and loggers. It was also relatively empty of Native Americans, largely because of disease, warfare, dislocation and starvation, but also because the high part of the range was never more than a seasonal refuge for the tribes that otherwise lived on the range’s flanks. The absence of miners and Indians was because of the granite backbone of the range, too high to settle and barren of minerals. It was the absence of nearly all things human, quite distinct from eastern lands, that led Muir to state “that wildness is a necessity” and note “in God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.” Muir had removed people from wilderness.

Muir’s literary excision of native peoples from these wild lands they had used elevated unsettled land to a higher plane. While Easterners hiked through second growth forest between towns, Muir demanded landscapes wholly untouched by civilization. In observing the growth of timbering and sheepherding, he saw his touchstone lands at risk. This led him to political activism instead of mere literary adventurism; he began to write advocacy pieces for Eastern magazines; he would lobby politicians to create new parks. In his struggles to protect lands around Yosemite Valley, Muir recognized that a broader organization was needed. And so he helped to found the Sierra Club.

Muir’s Sierra Club had a unique aspect to its mission, stating in the original Agreement of Association in 1892 to “enlist the support and co-operation of the people and the government in preserving the forests and other features of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.” This was no mere hiking club, though that was part of the club’s persona; this was a genuine lobbying organization from its start in 1892.

In the year prior to the first Earth Day, the club went to court on behalf of a mountain valley named Mineral King in the Sierra that would lead, about a year after the first Earth Day, to a cherished opinion made by Justice William O. Douglas: “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation. This suit would therefore be more properly labeled as Mineral King v. Morton.” Muir’s club had helped make it possible for the earth itself to be a plantiff in U.S. courts.


Craig H. Jones is Professor of Geological Sciences and Fellow with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published peer-reviewed research in ScienceNature, and in prominent earth-science journals. He is also the coauthor of Introduction to Applied Geophysics, and he blogs as the Grumpy Geophysicist.