A century after Muir’s death, will the cities of California serve as the graveyard of his legacy or a place of rebirth? “In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world—the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness,” he wrote.To him, a place like Yosemite was the “people’s cathedral” and he had faith that if people experienced it, they would become converts to the cause of preserving wilderness.
I’ve roamed many of the lands Muir set aside for us and have also taught about the American environmental movement and John Muir for a number of years.
And I know that 21st-century America presents deep challenges to Muir’s legacy.
The numbers of visitors to our National Parks who are African-American or Latino are far underrepresented relative to their proportion of the U. Membership in environmental advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club (which was founded by Muir) and the Nature Conservancy—which some hope can rescue park lands—is overwhelmingly white and aging.
In the case of the Nature Conservancy, the current average age of new members is 62.
Take, as an example, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
Through a joint partnership of federal, state, and local government and private parties, 450,000 acres have been put aside for conservation and recreational uses.A good start, but these are urban areas with a combined total population of more than 20 million people.Clearly more needs to be done to engage people with the natural world they are part of—even in the midst of the city.Several organizations are leading the way, such as Outdoor Afro with its local nature hikes to the redwood groves above Oakland and the Santa Monica Mountains or the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles with its new three and a half acres of Nature Garden in the heart of L. and emphasis on developing young citizen scientists to study urban nature.Even Muir’s venerable Sierra Club has joined the effort with its Inner City Outings program.This has been done incrementally over a 36-year period and costs are shared between the partners.Thanks to these efforts, mountain lions are again roaming the hills above Hollywood.Muir preached to an overwhelmingly white elite that had the means to disengage from the cities when they desired, who worked the levers of power to save his beloved wild lands.Today, 95 percent of Californians now live in urban areas and whites have made up a minority of our state’s population since 1999. And some projections suggest that visitor numbers in general will decline despite a rise in total population over the next century.All of this led to a love of nature and a life devoted to working on the environment.If they work together, it can actually be affordable for cash-strapped agencies to set aside new land for conservation that’s accessible for an urban population.