ONE of the best Christmas presents I received this year is a film by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan entitled ‘The National Parks: America’s Best Idea’ – as twelve episodes contained in a case of five DVDs.
So far I’ve watched episodes one to four which begin with John Muir’s campaign to protect Yosemite in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California from commercial development and ends with his failure to stop the flooding of Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley.
As the case cover explains: “Nearly a decade in the making, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea… is a breathtaking journey through the nation’s most spectacular landscapes and a celebration of the people – famous and unknown – who fought to save them for future generations to treasure.”
The first four episodes provide tremendous insight into not only the environmental campaigns lead by John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club, but also the important role of President Theodore Roosevelt in establishing and protecting national parks and also national monuments in the US.
The film is a reminder of how much was at risk before there was environmental legislation and protection. The story of the slaughter of bison in Yellowstone National Park to the verge of extinct is particularly harrowing.
John Muir would nowadays be called an environmentalist, or conservationists, but one hundred years ago he was recognized as a preservationist. In losing the fight to protect Hetch Hetchy Valley it may have appeared that the preservationists had lost to the conservationists.
In fact John Muir may have lost the battle, but won the war: Most of today’s environmental and conservation groups campaign for preservation, rather than conservation. And of course the management of national parks today in Australia, is mostly in accordance with the preservationist’s philosophy.
The film is narrated from the perspective of the preservationists with a deep respect for natural history and natural landscapes.
Following is an explanation of the difference between preservation and conservation.
“In July 1896, [John] Muir became associated with Gifford Pinchot, a national leader in the conservation movement. Pinchot was the first head of the United States Forest Service and a leading spokesman for the sustainable use of natural resources for the benefit of the people. His views eventually clashed with Muir and highlighted two diverging views of the use of the country’s natural resources.
Pinchot saw conservation as a means of managing the nation’s natural resources for long-term sustainable commercial use. As a professional forester, his view was that “forestry is tree farming,” without destroying the long-term viability of the forests.
Muir valued nature for its spiritual and transcendental qualities. In one essay about the National Parks, he referred to them as “places for rest, inspiration, and prayers.” He often encouraged city dwellers to experience nature for its spiritual nourishment. Both men opposed reckless exploitation of natural resources, including clear-cutting of forests. Even Muir acknowledged the need for timber and the forests to provide it, but Pinchot’s view of wilderness management was far more utilitarian.
Their friendship ended late in the summer of 1897 when Pinchot released a statement to a Seattle newspaper supporting sheep grazing in forest reserves. Muir confronted Pinchot and demanded an explanation. When Pinchot reiterated his position, Muir told him: “I don’t want any thing more to do with you.” This philosophical divide soon expanded and split the conservation movement into two camps: the preservationists, led by Muir, and Pinchot’s camp, who co-opted the term “conservation.” The two men debated their positions in popular magazines, such as Outlook, Harper’s Weekly, Atlantic Monthly, World’s Work, and Century.
Their contrasting views were highlighted again when the United States was deciding whether to dam Hetch Hetchy Valley. Pinchot favored the damming of the valley as “the highest possible use which could be made of it.” In contrast, Muir proclaimed, “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the hearts of man.”