When it comes to social media, I’ve rubbed a lot of cats in the wrong direction because I sometimes take a political stance on public land issues. The complaints all fall within the vein of: “I hike to get away from politics!” and “This is a hiking group! Keep your posts on topic!.” Every once in a while I also get “why can’t you just be that cool hiker guy who posts pretty nature porn?” as if I’m a hiking Alexa that accidentally turned NPR on.
But why do I post political content onto social media in the first place, especially if it either ruffles feathers or goes ignored? Well, in order to answer that question, I have to tell you a story.
In the late 1840’s, prospectors discovered gold in the Sierra foothills. With the discovery, a flood of prospectors entered the state in the first, great Gold Rush, which sent European-American explorers up the myriad canyons draining the Sierra Nevada mountains. One of those prospectors happened upon a grove of impossibly large trees at what is now Calaveras Big Trees State Park, and the legend (and seeds of destruction) of the mighty sequoia began.
At nearly the same time, California was on its way toward statehood, and the city of San Francisco was rapidly growing into a major metropolis. In order to satisfy San Francisco’s insatiable construction demand, the timber industry began a rapid extirpation of the coast redwoods, a cousin of the sequoia and perfect source of construction material. It wasn’t long before the timber industry had logged a huge percentage of the coast redwood’s original range, leaving only pockets of old growth forest under state and federal protection.
With the coast redwood supply drying up, the timber industry next turned its eyes toward the sequoias. During the last three decades of the 19th century, logging operations began working the groves of the Kings, Kaweah, and Tule Watersheds, The groves of the Kings, including the mighty Converse Basin and Mountain groves, were easiest to reach, and they were logged first. Within a few short decades, some of the largest and most beautiful groves in the Kings and later Tule River watersheds had succumbed to the axe. The irony is that sequoias produce awful timber, and the wood is really only suitable for shingles, grapevine stakes, and, cruelest of ironies, toothpicks.
Meanwhile, a Scotsman-turned-bearded mountain icon departed from Yosemite Valley with the intention of discovering the full range of the giant sequoia. John Muir set out from Mariposa Grove and worked his way south across the deep, inhospitable canyons of the Southern Sierra. He passed the heavily logged groves of the Kings River watershed, and set out to explore those of the rugged, less accessible Kaweah River watershed. One autumn day, Muir encountered Hale Tharp at the edge of Log Meadow, and the two became the first two white men to explore today’s Giant Forest Grove.
In the meantime, timber interests kept salivating at the prospect of more sequoia timber, useless though it was. Muir, seeing what had been done to the Converse Groves, began an advocacy group that later became the Sierra Club. In its quest to block further timber exploitation of sequoia groves, Muir’s group of conservationists found an unlikely ally in what would become a landmark battle between conservation and resource exploitation: agriculture.
Farmers relying on water shed from the Sierra began noticing that logging efforts had exacerbated run-off problems, making water supplies for their crops more unreliable. As agriculture was turning far more of a profit from logging in the Sierra, California agriculture and the Sierra Club successfully lobbied for legislation that would cease the destruction of sequoias and spare the Giant Forest Grove, which Muir considered the finest of all of the groves.
The legislation to create a Sequoia National Park and a General Grant National Park (the nation’s 2nd and 3rd) passed, and it was signed into law by President Benjamin Harrison. This episode laid the blueprint for what would become a 150 year tug-of-war between conservation and capitalism that has led to the establishment of the National Park Service, major conservation victories such as the scuttling of a plan to dam the Kings River Canyons, and of course failures such as the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley and the establishment of widespread fracking on BLM land throughout the Mountain West.
I provide this long anecdote to illustrate a point: our country learned long ago that, left to its own devices, corporate interests will not protect the country’s natural resources. They will exploit it until there’s nothing left to exploit, and then they will move on to the next resource and exploit that until nothing is left. It therefore becomes imperative for the government to check corporate interests in order to preserve at least some of what remains of America’s natural beauty. It’s both an economic issue (recreation generates a lot of money), a public health issue (nature has a profound effect on human wellbeing), and an issue of preserving America’s beauty for the future.
Every square centimeter of public land that we have ever set our boots on is the process of political action designed to act as a check against humanity’s worst impulses to exploit. We elect leaders to government from the municipal to federal level to make decisions on establishing public land and the agencies mandated to manage and preserve it. The use of public land is a political act, as much as some hikers would prefer to think that politics has nothing to do with it. Furthermore, public land belongs to everybody, as we are the ones who pay the taxes appropriated to the land managers to preserve and manager the land. It is ours, and what happens to our public land affects us all.
So, when I see news that the San Diego Mountain Biking Association is supporting legislation to alter the bedrock tenets of the Wilderness Act, or when I see news that former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is pursuing a bogus effort to undermine public protection for National Monuments for resource management, or when President Trump shuts down the government but allows the Department of the Interior to leave the parks open with a skeleton staff to the detriment of land that belongs to the American people, I am going to speak up.
I speak up because I am compelled, based on my experience and what I’ve learned from hiking and writing books on hiking, to share that information for everybody so that they may remain informed. I also hope to encourage and inspire people to take action to engage with their public land beyond just using it for their Sunday morning workouts. I want to encourage people to call their congresspeople, volunteer with local agencies, and remain generally informed so that they may use their voting rights to affect the kind of change that will benefit public land.
Sure, some people don’t like my point of view, and that’s okay. However, I can’t accept the particularly privileged attitude that says, “I don’t want to think about politics. I just want to hike” when political forces are constantly attempting to erode protections in order to turn public land into private resources. I totally get the desire to forget that political issues exist, but it’s really no longer an option to pretend that hiking trails spring up from the ground to suit one’s recreational whims.
So, if you’re one of those folks who wants to ignore politics, I get it. The political reality of the country is a brutal nightmare right now. I want to escape too. However, the next time you share a meme with a John Muir quote, remember that the only reason we quote him in the first place is because his political advocacy helped inspire the creation of America’s public land system.