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Muir Woods National Monument: William Kent's Progressive Vision

Text by Tom Butler
Photography by Antonio Vizcaino

Imagine, for a moment, the word beautiful spoken in German and Japanese, Portuguese and Korean, and a half-dozen other languages as well, mixed with the rustle of trickling waters and a winter wren’s ebullient song. That, or something akin to it, is the sound of Cathedral Grove on a typical day. The language of beauty may vary, but the response to it seems universal—at least in Muir Woods National Monument. Across the bay from San Francisco in Marin County, California, the monument attracts pilgrims from around the world who converse in hushed tones, faces craned upward to the light slipping down through the forest canopy. The towering redwoods stand mute unless a breeze ripples their branches, their scale dwarfing all other life around them. For people unaccustomed to the immensity of redwoods, they seem otherworldly.

Stream at Muir Woods National Monument

It is right that we should gaze upon them with reverence, for coast redwoods have achieved a kind of immortality; their kind has grown on Earth for 250 million years, and some individual redwoods alive today were saplings long before a famous Jewish prophet was born in Bethlehem. Through twenty centuries and more they have welcomed the cool, moist weather of the northern California coast. No other living thing on Earth reaches greater heights. Along with their shorter but more massive cousins, the giant sequoias of the Sierra, coast redwoods are the titans of the arboreal world, with many individuals exceeding 350 feet tall. (The tallest tree in Muir Woods is a relatively diminutive 258-footer, comparable in height to a twenty-six-story office tower.)

But as ecologist Reed Noss has written, “A redwood forest is more than just big trees. From the bewildering variety of life and past life (e.g., woody debris) on the forest floor to the intricate community of fungi, lichens, liverworts, vascular plants... earthworms, millipedes, mollusks, insects, and salamanders tens of meters up in the redwood canopies, the redwood forest is a complex ecosystem.” Preserving that complexity was not the first priority for European-American settlers to the redwood region, a narrow band of suitable habitat roughly thirty miles wide that stretches five hundred miles along the Pacific coast from the southern tip of Oregon down to Monterey County, California. Summer fog rolling off the ocean and winter rains grew towering trees that produced straight-grained, easily workable, rot-resistant—and therefore highly valuable—timber. While much of the region now supports second- and third-growth redwoods, less than five percent of the structurally complex, old-growth redwood forest survives, making it an endangered ecosystem.

At just 554 acres, Muir Woods National Monument is a relict and reminder of that original, unlogged forest. This small natural area has a big job, beyond even its role as sanctuary for the last ancient redwoods of the San Francisco Bay Area, which initially were spared from logging because the site was difficult to access. More than 700,000 people visit the monument each year. They walk the trail along Redwood Creek enjoying the great trees and occasional splashes of color, a Pacific trillium perhaps, or Oregon oxalis, on the forest floor. In a virgin redwood grove only diffuse light typically reaches the ground, but where a tree fall has opened a gap in the canopy, some visitors stand in a warm shaft of sunshine listening to a park ranger explain life and death among the redwoods. They hear how these thousand-year-old trees are mere youngsters for their kind, how the species reproduces from seeds and root sprouts, how a redwood’s bark is exceptionally thick and fire-resistant.

Besides being a preeminent institution for interpreting the redwood ecosystem, Muir Woods is also a useful port of entry into conservation history, for its creation included several key actors, among them naturalist John Muir, President Theodore Roosevelt, and William Kent, a forward-thinking California congressman who would later help create the National Park Service.

Born in Chicago in 1864 to an affluent, politically active family, William Kent moved to Marin County as a boy. Typical of his social class, Kent was educated in private schools, and attended Yale University before starting a business career in Chicago. Like Teddy Roosevelt, Kent was an avid sportsman, owned a ranch in the West, and became a political reformer. While on the city council and as president of the Municipal Voters’ League of Chicago around the turn of the century, he opposed corruption and advocated for city parks. Returning to Marin County, Kent established himself as a prominent civic force and was elected to Congress, where he served three terms, from 1911 to 1917. During his first campaign he ran as a Republican; during both reelection cycles he ran as a progressive Independent.

Two images of redwoods in Muir Woods National Monument

In 1905 William Kent and his wife, feminist Elizabeth Thatcher Kent, purchased 611 acres of wild forest on Mount Tamalpais, in Marin County. Kent wanted to preserve the stand of unlogged redwoods, but also had considerable business interests in the area. After the great San Francisco fire of 1906, a private utility offered to buy part of the land with the intent of damming Redwood Creek to create a water reservoir. When Kent refused to sell, the North Coast Water Company started eminent domain proceedings.

Capitalizing on the postfire political climate, in which new infrastructure was considered a pressing social need, the developer sought to profit from the virgin grove’s timber value as well as to create a local water monopoly. Kent saw the attempt to seize his property as both a threat to the land and bad legal precedent, and politically outmaneuvered his adversary. Knowing that under the 1906 Antiquities Act the president could designate national monuments around “objects of historic or scientific interest,” Kent decided to save the forestland along Redwood Creek by giving it away. On the day after Christmas in 1907, he mailed a deed for 295 acres, including the area coveted by the private utility, to the secretary of the interior, and asked that President Roosevelt declare it Muir Woods National Monument in honor of the famous writer and wilderness champion. A few weeks later, Teddy Roosevelt did so. The reservoir scheme was foiled. The redwoods were saved.

President Roosevelt sent a letter thanking Kent “most heartily,” and suggested that “all Americans who prize the undamaged and especially those who realize the literally unique value of the groves of giant trees, must feel that you have conferred a great and lasting benefit upon the whole country.” He also expressed admiration for John Muir, with whom Roosevelt had gone camping in Yosemite a few years previous, but offered that perhaps the new national monument should be named for Kent, as he was the land’s donor. In his reply, Kent demurred, saying, “So many millions of better people have died forgotten, that to stencil one’s own name on a benefaction seems to carry with it an implication of mandate immortality, as being something purchasable.”

“By George! you are right,” the president responded. “It is enough to do the deed and not to desire, as you say, to ‘stencil one’s own name on the benefaction.’” In corresponding with Muir about the new protected area, Kent wrote, “I know the dreams we have will come true and that men will learn to love nature. All I fear is that it may be too late.” Muir replied with effusive thanks: “This is the best tree-lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world. . . . Saving these woods from the axe and saw, from money-changers and water-changers and giving them to our country and the world is in many ways the most notable service to God and man I’ve heard of since my forest wanderings began.... Immortal Sequoia life to you.”

Muir and Kent’s mutual admiration would suffer a few years later when they found themselves on opposite sides of the conservation movement’s defining early battle—the fight over damming the Tuolumne River within Yosemite National Park to create the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir as a water source for San Francisco. On this proposed water impoundment, Congressman Kent was a key booster, along with the chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot. John Muir, who extolled Yosemite’s glories to a national audience through his writings, was bitterly opposed. The rhetoric was heated: “These temple destroyers, devotees of raging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature,” Muir railed, “and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.” Kent, in turn, characterized Muir as “a man entirely without social sense. With him, it is me and God and the rock where God put it, and that is the end of the story.”

Treetops at Muir Woods National Monument

The battle over Hetch Hetchy raged for years, and cleaved the nascent movement into camps: utilitarian conservationists, such as Pinchot, who stressed the “wise use” of natural resources, and preservationists, personified by Muir, who extolled the aesthetic and intrinsic value of wild nature, regardless of utility to humans. Hetch Hetchy was the last great campaign of Muir’s conservation career, and life. When Congress gave final approval in December 1913 allowing the dam builders to proceed, Muir was beaten. His health declined, and by Christmas 1914 the great wilderness advocate was dead.

Even as the conservation community fractured over Hetch Hetchy and other issues, the various societal impulses toward nature protection and social progress seemed to find some accommodation in the person of William Kent. After the fight was won to desecrate Muir’s sacred Yosemite temple, Kent helped pass legislation creating the National Park Service. (Until that act’s passage in 1916, the roughly thirty national parks and monuments that been designated had no single agency to administer them.) Ironically, supporters of the park service bill plotted strategy in Kent’s Washington, D.C., home just a few years after Hetch Hetchy supporters had gathered there to chart their campaign to despoil a wild canyon in Yosemite National Park.

Kent’s preservationist side was later ascendant when he made an additional donation to Muir Woods in 1921, and when he advocated for the whole of Mount Tamalpais to become a national park. That effort foundered, but Kent and others succeeded in protecting the area as Mount Tamalpais State Park, spurred in part by another gift of land from the Kent family.

Today, Muir Woods National Monument and adjacent state lands on Mount Tamalpais form a roughly 7,000-acre wild sanctuary in the heart of a cosmopolitan urban setting. For the millions of past visitors and millions of future visitors to this redwood cathedral, it is a cross-cultural exporter of wild beauty. Of that legacy, even John Muir would be proud.


Tom Butler is the editorial projects director for the Foundation for Deep Ecology, and a long-time conservation activist focused on wilderness and biodiversity. He is a founding board member and current vice president of the Northeast Wilderness Trust, the only land trust in the northeastern United States focused exclusively on protecting forever-wild landscapes. His book Wild Earth: Wild Ideas for a World Out of Balance collected essays from the conservation journal Butler edited from 1997 to 2005.

A professional nature photographer, editor, and conservationist, Antonio Vizcaíno uses beauty to help foster a new culture that respects the value of nature. A Mexican citizen but full-time world traveler, he studied at the International School of Photography in New York, and over the past two decades has published twenty books. He is co-founder of America Natural, a conservation organization that employs landscape photography as its primary means of communication. In 2001 he launched an ongoing expedition to photograph outstanding natural areas from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska. By contributing these images to environmental education campaigns, Vizcaíno seeks to increase protection for the extraordinary biodiversity of the Americas.

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"Muir Woods National Monument: William Kent's Progressive Vision" originally appeared in Wildlands Philanthropy: The Great American Tradition, essays by Tom Butler, photography by Antonio Vizcaino, and foreword by Tom Browaw (Earth Aware Editions, 2008). It is reprinted with permission.

Wildlands Philanthropy: The Great American Tradition

In Wildlands Philanthropy, veteran conservation writer Tom Butler and world-class landscape photographer Antonio Vizcaíno take readers on a tour of natural landmarks from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego and around globe. With more than 350 pages, 170 color photographs, and a large-format design, Wildlands Philanthropy is a book grand enough to tell the inspiring stories of people who saved extraordinary places.



Muir Woods National Monument

Muir Woods National Monument Google News Timeline

Wildlands Philanthropy: The Great American Tradition



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