More of a photo montage than a blog post, this entry reflects the residual astonishment of our days traveling through an initial set of national parks – Death Valley, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite – as well as the natural wonders of Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii (Monument Valley) in the Navajo Nation. I was inspired not only by the natural beauty (poorly conveyed in these images) but also by the vision and passion of the individuals that led to their preservation.
It is hard to believe that in 1864 in the midst of the Civil War with thousands of casualties daily, President Abraham Lincoln and the U.S. Congress chose to take time to preserve the Yosemite Valley. It was a radical step. The United States became the first nation to set aside natural splendor not for royalty and the rich but for everyone for all time.
I highly recommend the short documentary on Yosemite by Ken Burns. It highlights many of the hands that contributed to the initial designation and the later growth in the size and ambition of Yosemite National Park. Frederick Law Olmstead paid for the first boundary survey out of his own pocket and presented a compelling vision for its growth and preservation. Galen Clark, a failed gold prospector from New Hampshire, fell in love with groves of grand sequoias and became the first overseer persevering even when the government failed to appropriate money for his salary and park maintenance. John Muir fell in love with Yosemite and found his destiny preserving what he called the “Sanctum Sanctorum of the Sierra.”
Having taken President Theodore Roosevelt on a camping expedition through his favorite sites, Muir was able to weave a convincing forecast of a day when the couple hundred that visited Yosemite Valley in 1903 would grow to millions a year. The President went on to Sacramento and delivered a stirring call to arms –
We are not building this country of ours for a day. It is to last through the ages. We stand on the threshold of a new century. We look into the dim years that rise before us, knowing that if we are true that the generations that succeed us here shall fall heir to a heritage such as has never been known before. I ask that we keep in mind not only our own interests, but the interests of our children. Any generation fit to do its work must work for the future, for the people of the future, as well as for itself.
President Theodore Roosevelt, May 19, 1903
The seed that was planted grew to more than 400 sites and 84 million acres in the United States and untold acreage in nation’s around the globe. This legacy deserves reflection when conservation is under assault.
As I benefit from the museums and films that document history such as this and reflect on prophetic individuals and national leaders, I also take a moment to quietly acknowledge the uncounted numbers of contributors that are not documented. While Lincoln, Roosevelt. Muir, Clark, Ansel Adams and others are lauded for their role, we lose sight of so many others key to any momentous accomplishment.
As founder of a national non-profit, Equal Justice Works (EJW), I often receive praise that far exceeds my contribution. I take credit and great pride in the effort and devotion I dedicated to founding and building EJW but I also know there are scores who were with me each step of the way who go unheralded and many who have followed and helped EJW attain even greater heights than we could have ever imagined at the outset. It underscores for me the value of oral history and of cutting edge efforts such as those of my former friend and neighbor Roy Rosenzweig, a social and cultural historian at George Mason University, who set up an institute that continues to pioneer the use of new digital tools to collect and preserve what he called “perspectives of ordinary men and women” to break the myopic focus on the powerful and wealthy reflected in the work of most historians.
Now on to the vistas that truly inspire . . .