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Is John Muir’s Legacy Still Relevant?

Muir was the champion of majestic, wild landscapes like this one in Yosemite Valley.
Muir was the champion of majestic, wild landscapes like this one in Yosemite Valley.

In a recent blog, I paid tribute to the wonderful work of John Muir. We learned a little bit about what he accomplished in his lifetime and how his legacy is alive throughout the peaks, valleys and forests of California.

No one can argue that Muir didn’t have a huge impact on the protection of many incredible natural places; but a recent L.A. Times article raises the question of whether Muir’s ideas of saving wilderness and encouraging people to experience wild places are still relevant today.

This article argues that Muir’s vision valued the “awe-inspiring” Sierra Nevada without celebrating other, less spectacular and less “wild” natural areas. Additionally, some critics say that Muir’s vision of wilderness is elitist, aimed at the upper class, white Americans with leisure time to spend outdoors. The demographic makeup of California has certainly changed since then, and it’s incredibly important for groups like the League to reach diverse communities and make sure everyone has the opportunity to experience our public lands, no matter who or where they are.

I agree that we have a long way to go, not only to connect all people to our beautiful environment but to help them develop a true sense of respect and responsibility for these places. This can and should be done not only in far-off wilderness areas but also in the local urban park or community garden.

But, I also believe that places such as the John Muir Wilderness should be regarded on a different, and yes, maybe even a higher level than our urban parks. When I walk through my local redwood park, I feel happy and at peace, and I take comfort in the familiar surroundings. But when I am in the mountains, the beauty of the place takes my breath away; maybe because these areas are new to my eyes or maybe because I am so humbled by the fact that I am allowed to be a guest in this impressive space that is home to so many other beings. I value the two places equally, but the different effects they have upon me is noticeable, and I feel I need both kinds of experience in my life.

It is true that not everyone who should experience our wilderness areas does — this is why outdoor education is so important. By supporting organizations like Outward Bound and the Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative, which bring underserved communities out to these wild places, we can make sure that Muir’s legacy and lessons are available to all.

During this 100th anniversary of his passing, I choose to remember that John Muir started us down a path of appreciation of nature that we will continue on, bringing others along with us for the adventure.


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About Deborah Zierten


Deborah joined the League's staff in 2013 as the Education & Interpretation Manager. She brings with her extensive experience teaching science, developing curriculum and connecting kids to the natural world.

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