John Muir, Conservationist

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Muir, John
National Park Service
Father of the United States National Park system and founder of one of the country's largest environmental advocacy groups, the Sierra Club, John Muir is commonly credited for initiating the modern Conservation movement. Through his famous writings, lobbying efforts, and western treks, Muir helped many begin to understand the importance of forest and land conservation in America.

Biographical Highlights

John Muir is most often remembered as the father of the United States National Park system and founder of one of the country's largest environmental advocacy groups, the Sierra Club. Through his famous writings, lobbying efforts, and western treks, Muir helped many begin to understand the importance of forest and land conservation in America. Muir is commonly credited for initiating the modern Conservation movement.

“The battle for conservation will go on endlessly. It is the universal warfare between right and wrong.” - John Muir, 1895


Historic Roots

John Muir was born on April 21, 1838, in Dunbar, Scotland, as the third child to Daniel and Ann Muir (Holmes 1999). In 1849 John's father surprised his family with a sudden decision to emigrate to America. Leaving most family and friends behind, the Muir family traveled across the Atlantic, through New York and the Great Lakes, and settled in the new frontier farming community of Fountain Lake, Wisconsin (Winkley 1959).

Throughout the next several years of his life, Muir spent much of his time working on the family farm. Through his late teens and early twenties, Muir's growing desire to leave the farm and follow his scientific interests continued to motivate him in his independent studies. In 1860, a friend, William Duncan, encouraged John to take some of his inventions to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Fair to market his skills to machine shop owners. John unexpectedly earned high honors for his "machines" at the fair and also drew the attention of several people from the University of Wisconsin. In 1861, John Muir was admitted to the University of Wisconsin despite his limited formal education (Wolfe 1946).

In the spring of 1866, the Canadian factory, in which Muir worked, burned to the ground. With no work, John used some of the little money he had collected and bought a train ticket to Indianapolis. Muir soon found work with a wheel manufacturing company and was quickly promoted to a supervisor. In March of 1867, John Muir was blinded in a shop accident with a sharp file. After a month of recovery, he regained his sight but was forever changed by the incident. Muir resigned from his job and spent the next year traveling to Florida and Cuba; he eventually made his way to California via the Panama Canal. He landed in San Francisco and soon made his way to the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which ultimately would become his beloved home (Lyon 1972).

Throughout the next several years of his life, Muir spent a significant amount of time working and hiking in the Yosemite region of the Sierra mountain range. Much of his time was devoted to the study of glaciers. In 1874, his successful writing career began with a series of articles about the value of nature and the importance of conserving it. Muir's popularity grew quickly, and his articles were soon published in prominent magazines across the country. Dignitaries like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Roosevelt recognized John Muir's inspiring work and spent time with him in the Sierra Nevada mountain range on more than one occasion (Winkley 1959). It was under the advice and encouragement of John Muir that the U.S. Congress created Yosemite National Park in 1890. Indeed, it was Muir's writings that continued to inspire others, contributing to the creation of Sequoia, Petrified Forest, Mount Rainier, and Grand Canyon National Parks. These parks were established to preserve the valuable beauty of nature. John Muir was one of the first conservationists to be successful in bringing national attention to the importance of nature preservation.

Two years after Yosemite National Park was established, Muir and others who shared his conservationist vision formed an association called the Sierra Club. At first, Sierra Club was launched to preserve and make the Sierra Nevada more accessible to visitors. In 1901, Sierra Club began one of its most famous battles against the City of San Francisco to dissuade them from building a dam in the Yosemite region. This debate continued for twelve years until 1913, when the Hetch Hetchy Valley that Muir admittedly loved became a reservoir to serve the needs of San Francisco. Shortly after this painful loss, John Muir died of pneumonia at the age of seventy-six in Los Angeles, California (Sierra Club 2002). Muir had served as the Sierra Club's president until his death in 1914 and is recognized as the organization's founder. Through his life's work, Muir was successful in bringing national attention to the significant threats to our environment. Through the establishment of both our National Park System and the Sierra Club, John Muir founded a lasting commitment to conservation in America.



John Muir understood that the establishment of the United States National Park system would allow future generations to enjoy nature and to learn about conservation. He believed that it would take more than a few convincing books or articles for people to clearly understand and genuinely embrace the importance of protecting our environment. To heighten their perception of nature, people needed to experience it for themselves. National Parks have given us a concrete means through which we can encounter the natural world and cultivate our commitment to preservation.

The Sierra Club continues Muir's legacy of conservation and environmentalism by increasing public awareness, providing an advocacy voice, and wielding political power to lobby for more environmentally-sound public policy. The Club, with chapters in local communities across the country, gives citizens concerned with conservation, preservation, and environmental issues, a place to associate and work for societal understanding and change.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

John Muir has influenced the philanthropic sector in several ways, his numerous articles and books brought significant attention to the early conservation movement. His writings not only motivated people to visit the Sierras but also enlightened his readers on the inherent value of nature. By setting aside and conserving the environment for future generations, Muir believed, many could and would benefit from its riches for years to come. Once nature has been destroyed, it is very difficult to re-create its intrinsic value and beauty. John Muir's philosophy and life work have given us an invaluable gift.

John Muir founded the Sierra Club in 1892. This organization was originally established to preserve and make accessible the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Over 100 years later, the Sierra Club has expanded outside the borders of California and boasts a membership of over 700,000. As John Muir had initially intended, this club continues to work diligently at both preserving the environment and enabling people to explore and enjoy the outdoors. Through funding received from membership fees and donations, Sierra Club has become a significant player in the modern Conservation movement. Individuals and organizations across America clearly understand that contributions to the Sierra Club will be well used in preserving the environment (Sierra Club 2002).

Muir's establishment of the Sierra Club and its resulting success, as well as his inspirational writings, should be given its recognition for inspiring the founding of many nonprofit organizations concerned with environmental issues. His and his Club's influence cannot be quantified. Yet, in the years following Sierra Club's founding, thousands of groups arose concerned with the preservation of endangered species, industry's pollution of the environment, a celebration of wildlife and plant life, water quality, recycling, and many more issues related to the environment and conservation.

In 1983, the John Muir Trust philanthropic organization was founded to protect and conserve "wild places" throughout the country of Scotland. This organization was named in tribute to the Scottish-born Muir, who helped bring international attention to the importance of environmental conservation. Since 1983, the John Muir Trust has been guided by Muir's charge to "do something for wilderness and make the mountains glad" (John Muir Trust 2002).


Key Related Ideas

  • Conservationism: A movement that advocates conservation especially of natural resources. Planned management of natural resources (
  • Environmentalism: The protection of the natural environment. Teaching the importance of the environment and ways to protect it. Greta Thunberg is a modern day activist fighting for the environment.
  • Outdoor Recreation: Enjoying the outdoors, respecting nature and appreciating the natural wonders of the world. Hiking, biking, riding horses, etc. are all forms of outdoor recreation. Important People Related to the Topic
  • Aldo Leopold (1886-1948): Co-founder of the Wilderness Society and author of A Sand County Almanac and a seminal essay called A Land Ethic. Aldo was a scientist and studied the fields of forestry, soil, conservation, wildlife management, and wilderness preservation.
  • Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946): The leading conservation and forestry advocate of the early twentieth century, Pinchot served in several governmental positions, including as Chief Forester of the new U.S. Forest Service. Along with President Theodore Roosevelt, Pinchot helped create a national conservation movement and made conservation a national policy issue.
  • President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) visited John Muir in Yosemite in 1903. While camping together in the High Sierra, Muir and Roosevelt discussed the formation of a United States National Park system. During Roosevelt's terms, five parks were established. Both Muir and Roosevelt are commonly given credit for establishing our national parks.


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • The John Muir Project is a project of Earth Island Institute, which was founded in 1982 by David Brower. The John Muir project is dedicated to the ecological management of federal lands to ensure that these lands are managed to provide “optimal ecological conditions to support and restore native biodiversity” (
  • National Wildlife Federation is the largest conservation organization, boasting over four million members and a mission to conserve wildlife and protect the environment (
  • The Nature Conservancy was founded in 1951 with a mission to “conserve the land and waters on which all life depends.” The Conservancy has protected nearly 103 million acres of land and thousands of miles of rivers since its founding (
  • Pinchot Institute for Conservation specializes in forest conservation leadership through policy development, research, and dissemination. The Institute was founded in 1961 by Gifford Bryce Pinchot (
  • Sierra Club, founded by John Muir in 1892, is the oldest national conservationist and environmental advocacy organization, with local chapters in cities and towns across America (
  • National Park Foundation


Reflection Question

If John Muir were alive today, what do you think his focus would be on? Land conservation or more pressing environmental issues such as climate change?



  • Holmes, Steven J. The Young John Muir: An Environmental Biography. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. ISBN: 0299161544.
  • John Muir Award. Wild Places. Available from
  • The John Muir Project. About the John Muir Project. Available from
  • John Muir Trust. Wild Places for Nature and People.
  • John Wesley Powell Memorial Museum. Major John Wesley Powell. Available from
  • Lyon, Thomas J. John Muir. Boise: Boise State College, 1972.
  • Miller, Sally M., ed. John Muir, Life and Work. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993. Paperback: ISBN: 0826315941
  • National Park Service. History. Available from
  • National Park Service. National Park Service, the First 75 Years, Biographical Vignettes: John Muir. Available from
  • The Nature Conservancy. About Us. Available from
  • O'Grady, John P. Pilgrims to the Wild: Everett Rues, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Clarence King, Mary Austin. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993. ISBN: 0874804124.


This briefing paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course in 2019 at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.