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What We Might Learn from the National Park Service's Decision to Chop Down Redwoods

The John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez, California

"Any fool can destroy trees" ~ John Muir

So was the National Park Service (NPS) foolish when it decided to in early July to cut trees at the John Muir National Historic Site? When it fired up the chainsaws and turned 20 coastal redwoods into sawdust?

These trees' offense was that they were the wrong species in the wrong place at the wrong time. In official parlance, they were "non-historic and non-contributing," meaning they did not conform to what the federal land-management agency has determined to be the site's period of significance. That is, from 1849 to 1914, which encompasses the date the first house was constructed on this property in the Alhambra Valley to Muir's death (in Los Angeles).

Of course the legendary naturalist, writer, and Sierra Club founder did not move with his family to the Martinez, CA location until 1890, following the death of his in-laws who had owned the farm and its surrounding orchards; Muir resided there until he passed away 24 years later. It is those final decades especially that NPS actually is seeking to recreate.

This chronological focus spelled the redwoods' doom. Because twenty years ago the agency had planted them to screen visitors' view of nearby highways, and did so in a location that during Muir's residence had been wide open, the trees did not match up with what NPS now considers the site's reigning cultural landscape. The redwoods were history.

A redwood tree in front of John Muir's former home.

So what is a "cultural landscape" and why is it so definitive? It is a construct, a framing device that depends on the existence of a precise geographic area (the acreage of Muir's farm, for instance), and which contains moreover "cultural and natural resources and the wildlife or domestic animals therein, associated with a historic event, activity, or person or exhibiting other cultural or aesthetic values." A cultural landscape begets layers of cultural value. Totally meta.

Trying to parse that language, and its underlying subtext, carries us deep into the rhetoric and history of environmentalism, or at least that branch of it associated with the historic-preservation movement.

Beginning in the late-19th century, as millions of immigrants--the Great Unwashed--poured into the United States to serve as the shock troops of the Industrial Revolution, activists emerged to champion landmarks associated with the nation's founding generations. Usually white, almost always well off, often women, these formidable folks fought to protect Paul Revere's home. They gathered in support of northern homesteads and southern plantations built in the colonial and revolutionary eras, from those of the Adams family to the Jeffersons. In the southwest, they gave new meaning to the crumbling remnants of New Spain, rebuilding its missions, shoring up its cathedrals, and emblazoning its trails (the ubiquitous Caminos Real) with interpretative signposts. In San Antonio, wealthy Anglos even fought pitched battles in defense of the Alamo (this time they won).

Such campaigns served multiple purposes. In small ways they reined in the ravaging power of industrialization and its accompanying urban-development schemes, which at times put these wives, sisters, and daughters at odds with their husbands, brothers, and fathers.

Alas, these intriguing familial debates came with a dark twist: the landscapes these organizers identified as worth saving harkened back to earlier times in which pre-industrial white Americans were dominant. By declaring that only certain edifices and people mattered, they scrubbed out those individuals and communities who they refused to integrate into their conception of historical significance.

Planters and Puritans made the cut. Slaves and Jews did not. In Southern California, like Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, the influence of Spain (white) was promoted over that of Mexico (brown). Elites made history; everyone else was pastless.The few had agency; the rest did not.

These local struggles, and their attendant baggage, went national with the enactment of the Antiquities Act (1906). Concerned that thieves were robbing archaeological sites of invaluable artifacts of Indian civilizations long gone; worried that mining, grazing, and logging were endangering some of the country's most breathtakingly idiosyncratic terrain; convinced that America the Beautiful was on the auction block, preservationists demanded that Congress take action. It took more than a decade of lobbying, but in the end Theodore Roosevelt signed the legislation (16 USC 431-433) that granted him and future presidents the authority to establish national monuments.

To be eligible "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States" had to serve a particular purpose. Federal agencies, the new law mandated, could only allow "the examination of ruins, the excavation of archaeological sites, and the gathering of objects of antiquity upon the lands under their respective jurisdictions" if approved applicants conducted their excavations for the benefit of "reputable museums, universities, colleges, or other recognized scientific or educational institutions, with a view to increasing the knowledge of such objects, and that the gatherings shall be made for permanent preservation in public museums." National Monuments were archives, repositories of knowledge to which only certain qualified experts would have access; and they alone could interpret these sites' import.

Some of the consequences of this exclusive arrangement were manifest in the places that Roosevelt anointed as national monuments. Whatever their unique geological features, Devils Tower (1906), El Morro (1906), Montezuma Castle (1906), and Chaco Canyon (1907), like Gila Cliff (1907), the Grand Canyon (1908), and Navaho (1909) also contained rich evidence of ancient Indian presence. By his signature, Roosevelt made it possible for the government to protect these gems from unscrupulous collectors as well as from the resident native peoples for whom they often held considerable spiritual significance.

This discriminatory claim on the land, and the assertion of its singular cultural value, was grafted into the 1916 Organic Act (39 Stat. 535) setting up the National Park Service. In it, Congress declared that the new agency's purpose would be "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

The sole way for NPS to insure that the landscapes under its stewardship remained unimpaired has been to stop time. It has pulled off this miracle by developing principles--"period of historical significance" and "cultural landscape," among them--that has allowed it to proclaim certain pasts, certain spaces to be more important than others; and to assert the primacy of its interpretation of them. That this ethos has shaped its managerial actions was noisily evident this month when chainsaws ripped through the offending redwoods on Muir's farm.

John Muir would have been comfortable with much of the foundational logic that has influenced the Park Service's preservation ethos. Although he died two years before the Park Service was born, he was a tireless promoter of the national park system. Among the ideas the agency inherited from him was his prescription that these wild and scenic treasures must remain wild. By which Muir meant they should be devoid of human markings: tourists might come and go, but a different kind of nomadism was intolerable.

Like those promoting the Antiquities Act, Muir had a unsettling disdain for the native peoples, in his case the Mono Indians who were fully at home in Yosemite's rocky passes, alpine meadows, and river bottomlands. If he could extract them from this site, he could put them out of time; their presence sullied what he considered pristine.

Detail of a redwood tree at the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez, California

Yet as much as Muir wanted national parks to reify a racialist hierarchy determining who belonged there and who did not, what behaviors were acceptable and what were not, he was well aware that Nature does not stand still. Its power to grind itself into new shapes, as he smartly hypothesized about the glaciers sculpting Yosemite, meant that life on earth, all life, was forever in flux: "The world, though made, is yet being made."

Nothing remains static. Not even trees.

They contained for Muir an animating vitality that gave these most rooted of plants an unexpected mobility. He affirmed as much in December 1874 while exploring the upper watershed of the Yuba River. With a fierce storm howling overhead, he climbed high up into a 100-foot Douglas Spruce. "The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobo-link on a reed."

Concluded an exhilarated Muir in Mountains of California (1894): "We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men, but it never occurred to me until this stormday...that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree wavings--many of them not so much."

Muir's insight into the transitory nature of all things complicates the Park Service's justification for clearing away vegetation at the Muir National Historic Site, whether "non-contributory" or "non-historic"; and challenges the agency's privileging of those species that only had existed in an identifiable spot more than a century ago.

The Park Service's straight-laced preservationism has turned a once-vibrant farmstead into a mausoleum, restraining the land's life-affirming mutability.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments on The Back Forty, KCET-TV's natural resources, wildlife and land use blog, every other Wednesday,

The two top photos on this post is by Flickr user rscottjones. Both were used under a Creative Commons License. The bottom photo is by Flickr user aaron_anderer, which was also used under a Creative Commons License.

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