John Muir Visits the Sierras
In the 1860s, shortly after the end of the Civil War, a young Scottish immigrant named John Muir traveled to the American West. Upon entering Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Muir was astounded by the natural beauty that surrounded him:
"I have run wild! As long as I live I'll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I'll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I'll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can."
For Muir, a vagabond with a scientist's mind and a poet's heart, Yosemite and the Sierras became home. Even though he continued to travel, and lived much of his later life in the Bay Area, the Sierra Nevada range of mountains were where he spent his happiest days and nights, hiking the rugged mountains and sleeping under the stars. After many years of bucolic bliss, Muir decided to return the favor and do something to "make the mountains glad."
The Sierra Club's Founding
Though Yosemite Valley was part of a small state park, Muir had much bigger plans for the area. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Muir -- already established as a prolific writer and naturalist -- enlisted support from a number of journalists, educators, artists, lawyers and other professionals with an interest in conservation and outdoor recreation.
Muir's group decided in 1892 to establish a club similar to the Appalachian Mountain Club, and on May 28 of that year, they established the Sierra Club, whose mission was to "explore, enjoy, and render accessible the mountain regions of the Pacific Coast and to publish authentic information concerning them, and to enlist the support and cooperation of the people and government in preserving the forests and other natural features of the Sierra Nevada."
In its earliest years, the Sierra Club tackled many scientific challenges, owing perhaps to the fact that many of the club's 182 charter members were scientists and professors. They began a program of mapping, surveying and photographing the Sierra Nevada range. In 1893, one year after its founding, the Sierra Club published the first issue of the influential Sierra Club Bulletin, which is still published today as Sierra magazine.
Growth of the Sierra Club
By 1900, membership in the Sierra Club numbered 384, but Muir -- who had been elected as the Club's president -- wanted to encourage more growth and influence. In 1901, the Club sponsored its first group outing, a party of nearly 100 people who spent several days camping and hiking in the area around Tuolumne Meadows in the Sierras. This successful event led to the creation of annual High Trips, which became larger as word spread of the beauty of the region and the community spirit of the camp-outs.
A turning point in the Sierra Club -- and in the conservation movement -- was reached in 1903 when President Theodore Roosevelt joined Muir for a camping trip to Yosemite. Two years later, with support from Roosevelt, Muir and countless other wilderness advocates, the State of California ceded the land around Yosemite to the federal government. This huge victory for the Club was the fulfillment of Muir's vision, eventually leading to the creation of Yosemite National Park, the second national park to be established (after Yellowstone National Park).
This legislative triumph, however, couldn't save one of the Sierras most magnificent canyons, Hetch Hetchy, from being dammed. Despite aggressive lobbying from the Sierra Club and conservation advocates nationwide, Gifford Pinchot and his U.S. Forest Service supported the dam, and in 1913 Congress passed a bill to dam Hetch Hetchy, leading Muir to lament that "no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man."
This devastating loss led the Sierra Club and others to lobby the federal government to separate the national parks from the U.S. Forest Service. In another Club legislative success, the National Park Service was created in 1916, and the Forest Service's role in land management was considerably diminished. In fact, the first director of the National Park Service was Stephen Mather -- an active member of the Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club Today
In the years after World War II, the role of the Sierra Club expanded to become a nationwide organization (with an affiliated Sierra Club Canada); the Club also continues to take on a number of political and environmental challenges. As a result, the stated mission of the Club evolved: "To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources; To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives."
In addition to lobbying and conservation efforts, the Sierra Club never lost sight of its original purpose -- wilderness exploration and recreation. After the Club's annual High Trips became so popular that participants numbered in the hundreds, the annual events were cancelled in favor of outings that were smaller and more numerous. The Sierra Club now sponsors hundreds of annual trips each year, throughout the United States and internationally.
Despite tackling a number of controversial issues, including nuclear energy policy, immigration and population control, the Club's membership continues to grow -- in fact, as threats to the nation's wilderness emerge, the Club's membership has responded in kind. After President Ronald Reagan appointed notorious anti-environmentalist James Watt to the Department of the Interior, membership in the Sierra Club jumped from 183,000 to 245,000 in just 12 months, and Watt was eventually forced to resign.
Membership in the Sierra Club now stands at about 1.4 million. The Club also has about 500 paid staff members working at the national headquarters in San Francisco, in the lobbying office in Washington, D.C., and in dozens of state and regional offices.
In addition to the Sierra Club, organizations affiliated with the Club include the Sierra Club Foundation, a non-profit charitable group founded in 1960 by David Brower, the student-run Sierra Student Coalition, the Sierra Club Voter Education Fund, and a highly regarded publishing branch, Sierra Club Books, which publishes the wildly successful Sierra Club Calendars.