The Importance of Our Forests

The excerps that follow are from a Muir article entitled "The Treasures of the Yosemite." It appeared in 1890 in The Century Magazine, a nationally read publication whose editors were part of the fight to create a broader Yosemite National Park.

By the mid 1880s mining, grazing, logging, and private development in the Tuolumne and Merced River watersheds that surrounded Yosemite Valley were beginning to threaten the state's ability to protect the valley itself. Awareness grew that the its resources were dependent on those of a far greater area. There were calls for the protection of the greater Yosemite region as a national preserve in the same way that Yellowstone was saved in 1872. John Muir was at the forefront of this movement. He described the damaging effects of continued logging and particularly continued grazing. His most significant contribution, though, was in his appeal for protecting the whole interconnected system of water, plants, and animals in the Yosemite region. In other words, he wanted to save the entire Yosemite ecosystem.

On the highest ridges passed over on our way to Yosemite the lovely silver fir (Abies amabilis) forms the bulk of the woods, pressing forward in glorious array to the very brink of the walls on both sides and far beyond to a height of from 8000 to 9000 feet above the level of the sea. Thus it appears that Yosemite, presenting such stupendous faces of bare granite, is nevertheless embedded in magnificent forests. All the main species of pine, fir, spruce, and libocedrus are also found in the valley itself. But there are no "big trees" (Sequoia gigantea) in the valley or about the rim of it. The nearest are about ten miles beyond the boundary wall of the grant, on small tributaries of the Merced and Tuolumne. The sequoia belt extends along the western flank of the range, from the well-known Calaveras Grove on the north to the head of Deer Creek on the south, a distance of about two hundred miles, at an elevation of from about 5000 to 8000 feet above sea level. From the Calaveras to the south fork of King’s River the species occurs only in small isolated groves or patches so sparsely distributed along the belt that two of the gaps that occur are nearly forty miles wide, one of them between the Stanislaus and Tuolumne groves, the other between those of the Fresno and King’s River. Hence southward, instead of forming small sequestered groups among the other conifers, the big trees sweep majestically across the broad, rugged basins of the Kaweah and Tulare in noble forests a distance of nearly seventy miles, with a width of from three to ten miles, the continuity of this portion of the belt being interrupted only by deep cañons....

Though the area occupied by the species increases so much from north to south, there is no marked increase in the size of the trees. A height of two hundred and seventy-five feet and a diameter of twenty is perhaps about the average for full-grown trees: specimens twenty-five feet in diameter are not rare, and a good many are nearly three hundred feet high. The largest I have yet met in the course of my explorations is a majestic old monument in the new King’s River forest. It is thirty-five feet and eight inches in diameter inside the bark four feet from the ground, and a plank of solid wood the whole width of the tree might be hewn from it with out the slightest decay.

Under the most favorable conditions these giants live five or six thousand years though few of even the larger specimens are more than half as old. The sequoia seems to be entirely exempt from the diseases that afflict and kill other conifers—mildew, dry rot, or any other kind of rot. I never saw a sick sequoia, or one that seemed to be dying of old age. Unless destroyed by man, they live on indefinitely until burned, smashed by lightning, or cast down by the giving way of the ground on which they stand.

These king trees, all that there are of their kind in the world, are surely worth saving, whether for beauty, science, or bald use. But as yet only the isolated Mariposa Grove has been reserved as a park for public use and pleasure. Were the importance of our forests at all understood by the people in general, even from an economic standpoint their preservation would call forth the most watchful attention of the Government. At present, however, every kind of destruction is moving on with accelerated speed. Fifteen years ago I found five mills located on or near the lower margin of the main sequoia belt, all of which were cutting big-tree lumber. How many more have been built since that time I am unable to say, but most of the Fresno group are doomed to feed the large mills established near them, and a company with ample means is about ready for work on the magnificent forests of King’s River. In these mill operations waste far exceeds use. For after the young, manageable trees have been cut, blasted, and sawed, the woods are fired to clear the ground of limbs and refuse, and of course the seedlings and saplings, and many of the unmanageable giants, are destroyed, leaving but little more than black, charred monuments. These mill ravages, however, are small as yet compared with the comprehensive destruction caused by "sheepmen." Incredible numbers of sheep are driven to the mountain pastures every summer, and desolation follows them. Every garden within reach is trampled, the shrubs are stripped of leaves as if devoured by locusts, and the woods are burned to improve the pasturage. The entire belt of forests is thus swept by fire, from one end of the range to the other; and, with the exception of the resinous Pinus contorta, the sequoia suffers most of all. Steps are now being taken towards the creation of a national park about the Yosemite, and great is the need, not only for the sake of the adjacent forests, but for the valley itself. For the branching cañons and valleys of the basins of the streams that pour into Yosemite are as closely related to it as are the fingers to the palm of the hand—as the branches, foliage, and flowers of a tree to the trunk. Therefore, very naturally, all the fountain region above Yosemite, with its peaks, cañons, snow fields, glaciers, forests, and streams, should be included in the park to make it an harmonious unit instead of a fragment, great though the fragment be; while to the westward, below the valley, the boundary might be extended with great advantage far enough to comprehend the Fresno, Mariposa, Merced, and Tuolumne groves of big trees, three of which are on roads leading to the valley, while all of them are in the midst of conifers scarcely less interesting than the colossal brown giants themselves.

To Start You Thinking

1) What threats to the forests and watershed surrounding Yosemite does Muir identify in this article?

2) Identify the two analogies that Muir uses to suggest an ecological relationship between the biologial elements of the Yosemite watershed.


from John Muir, "The Treasures of the Yosemite," in The Century Magazine, Vol. XL. August, 1890. No. 4.

Last modified in June, 2019 by Rick Thomas