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John Muir and Gifford Pinchot have often been seen as the embodiment of conflicting environmental philosophies. Muir, the preservationist, was the protector of Yosemite and co-founder of the Sierra Club. Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service advocating sustainability in timber harvests, instituted conservation. These views of how society related to nature were inherently at odds. The idealistic Muir saw nature as something special and separate from flawed humanity; the pragmatic Pinchot understood that people used the products of nature because they were part of nature. The environmental movement's original sin, and the root of many of it's difficulties, was its inability to reconcile these two viewpoints and these two men.
So how was it that Muir and Pinchot went camping together amongst the sharp peaks, and jewel-like lakes of Glacier National Park? Shouldn't they have argued the whole time? Instead, both recorded their delight at the experience. Does this mean that the seemingly irreparable divide in environmental ethos is not as unbridgeable as it might seem?
The perceived rivalry between these two men has long obscured a fascinating and hopeful story. Muir and Pinchot did not invent the preservation/conservation divide; rather, they spent years in an alliance to overcome it and it lead to the original movement for public lands. Their shared commitment to the glories of natural landscapes united their disparate talents and viewpoints to create a fledgling vision of American land ownership and management.
As we argue over public lands today whether it is the scope of national monuments, oil and gas drilling, or limits on cars at Old Faithful we overlook the very idea of public lands, the curious notion that large swaths of America are owned by all of us in common, with management subject to democratic oversight. Clayton's compelling new book examines the role of these two men in forging American attitudes towards nature, wilderness, and public ownership. Natural Rivals reveals that only by understanding Muir and Pinchot's complex dynamic can we hope to create a cohesive guiding philosophy for our treasured lands.