Muir Woods and the “unresolved problem at the heart of park history”

Preservation versus use. This, according to environmental historian Alan MacEachern, is the “unresolved problem at the heart of park history.” Last weekend I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit Muir Woods National Monument just north of San Francisco where I came face to face with this tension in park history.

On January 9, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt declared Muir Woods a national monument under the Antiquities Act following Congressman and philanthropist William Kent’s donation of a 295-acre tract of old-growth redwood forest outside Sausilito, California. Kent had purchased and donated the tract of redwoods in a bid to prevent the area from being drowned by a proposed dam. He donated the land to the federal government on the condition that it be designated a national monument named for wilderness advocate, John Muir. Unlike what would happen during the Hetch Hetchy controversy in Yosemite National Park just a few years later, Muir Woods was spared from inundation and it remains a national monument to this day.

While Kent helped save this portion of the Redwood Valley from being flooded, the creation of the national monument flooded the valley with tourists. For more than 100 years, tourists (like myself) have braved the winding, steep roads into the valley in order to walk through the redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument. This onslaught of tourists armed with cameras over the years has altered the ecology of the valley and its famed trees. The creation of this national monument altered human relations in the Redwood Valley in a profound way, but it did not eliminate the human impact on this environment. Humans and the forest, in a sense, have co-evolved.

A carved mural in the Muir Woods gift shop summed up the broad evolution of the human relationship with nature in this valley. The mural showed various images on a time line beginning with Aboriginal people, followed by European colonists, loggers, conservationists, and finally tourists. Each transition on this time line was marked as follows: Inhabitation, Colonization, Exploitation, Conservation, Recreation.

By 2010, when I stood among the redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument, I was clearly in the “Recreation” stage on this time line. As I posed for a photo next to the Pichot Tree and watched other tourists scramble “out of bounds” over fencing to take pictures inside hollowed redwoods, I could see the many ways that people have reshaped this place through their recreational uses of the valley. Alfred Runte argues in his history of the US national park system that “because most Americans still seek out spectacular scenery and natural phenomena, environmentalists caution that the public has little understanding of the restraints on visitation needed to protect the diversity of the parks as a whole.” It seems clear that that statement still holds true today. “Recreation,” more so than “Stewardship” or “Ecological Preservation,” adequately describes our current popular relationship with national parks.

For a thorough history of Muir Woods National Monument, click here.

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