Leadership Ideas, Information and News

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Nature's Army: When Soldiers Fought for Yosemite

Harvey Meyerson (Author)
Development of Western Resources

Blessings on Uncle Sam's soldiers! They have done their job well, and every pine tree is waving its arms for joy.--John Muir

Muir's words and this book both celebrate a crucial but largely forgotten episode in our nation's history--the rescue of our national parks by soldiers with an environmental ethic generations ahead of its time. In Nature's Army, Harvey Meyerson chronicles this unexpected but fascinating tale of environmental and military leadership and shows why its impact and relevance still resonate today.

Despite the worldwide renown and popularity of Yosemite National Park, few people know that its first stewards were drawn from the so-called Old Army. From 1890 until the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916, these soldiers proved to be extremely competent and farsighted wilderness managers. Meyerson recaptures the forgotten history of these early environmentalists and shows how their work countered the army's Indian-fighting image and set significant standards for the future oversight of our national parks.

The army, Meyerson suggests, had actually been well prepared to assume this stewardship. During its first hundred years--and despite the interruptions of warfare--its soldiers had crisscrossed the American landscape, preparing maps, and writing detailed reports describing climate, weather, physical terrain, ecosystems, and the diverse flora and fauna populating the lands they explored and often protected during an era of wide open exploitation of natural resources. Such experience made the army better suited than any other federal agency to oversee the early national parks system.

So great was the army's ultimate environmental influence that the National Park Service embraced the army model as its own, right down to the uniforms still worn today. In fact, many of the first civilian rangers were drawn directly from the army, while some of the Sierra Club's most outspoken early members were cavalrymen serving in Yosemite.

Combining environmental, military, political, and cultural history, Meyerson's study is especially timely in light of Yosemite's enormous popularity (four million visitors annually) and recent controversies pitting conservation forces against dam builders and proponents of expanded public access.

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