John Muir (1837-1914) was an American naturalist, explorer, and writer who founded the Sierra Club and was instrumental in building support for our system of national parks. He became a popular and respected figure, but his views about nature were considered far too radical. His last big battle with established society, which he lost, was his fight to protect Yosemite National Park.
The city of San Francisco wanted to dam one of the park’s two major rivers and convey the water nearly 300kms to the city for municipal water supply. Muir argued that the beautiful Hetch-Hetchy Valley should be considered sacred and too valuable to destroy for a reservoir, and furthermore, that national parks needed to be protected for posterity.
His logic was that nature has an inherent right to exist and that we humans need to accommodate to Nature, rather than the other way around. For details, see this very readable biography of John Muir written 25 years ago by Frederick Turner, or this more recent biography by Donald Worster.
Who’s crazy? In the battle to save the Hetch-Hetchy Valley from inundation, Muir’s conservationist allies, including his own Sierra Club partners, accepted the view that economic expediency (lots of money pushing for the reservoir) would prevail. Muir was left as the sole voice fighting against society’s interests. When you’re the only one making the argument, you get labeled as “crazy”.
But Muir also happened to be right. San Francisco had lots of other options for its water supply, and the Hetch-Hetchy Valley really was a unique natural heritage. More than 100 years later, the battle lines are still there. San Francisco’s water utility asserts with smug assurance that the reservoir is central to the region’s water security, with no allusion to the century-old controversy. Meanwhile the organization, Restore Hetch Hetchy, is trying to honor Muir’s legacy.