Thoreau, Emerson, Muir, Carson and Leopold the founders of environmentalism

Eartha Steward
Special to the Daily
Walden Pond
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

Dear Eartha,

I was recently reading about the efforts of John Muir to preserve wilderness in the Sierras and was curious about other environmental visionaries in America. Can you give me some background on how we’ve come to this point in our history?

— Marianne, Frisco

Marianne, thank you for wanting to learn more about the visionaries who have fought so hard to keep nature at the center of our worldview. It hasn’t always been an easy feat. Even today, it is a constant effort to highlight the importance of our environment and the necessary co-existence between humans and nature.

“I went into the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”Henry David Thoreau

Let’s take a step back into 19th century New England where the Transcendentalist movement first took root with visionaries such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The movement was known for a view of nature as a teacher — reflecting the divine spirit within one’s self. In Thoreau’s famous work, “Walden” (1854), he describes, “I went into the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” For many of us living in the Colorado High Country, the sentiments of Thoreau are not lost. We see nature as a place to discover ourselves and to learn from what these wild lands have to offer.

The Transcendentalist movement was built on by visionaries in the early 20th century like John Muir and Aldo Leopold. Muir was a naturalist and author who focused on the importance of wilderness to protect resources such as forests and water. Muir eventually founded the Sierra Club and influenced contemporary president Theodore Roosevelt in his decisions to establish conservation programs and national parks. Muir was famous for saying, “everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” He recognized the importance of wilderness for recreation and the intrinsic value of nature.


Leopold’s work in the 1940s introduced the idea of ethics in relation to the natural world. Ecosystems are imperative to humankind’s survival. He recognized that respect for the environment was an ethical concern — an idea still inherent in the environmental movement today.

In the 1950s, Rachel Carson rose to be the editor-in-chief for the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, where she saw firsthand the devastation of chemical pesticides on fish and wildlife. Her famous work, “Silent Spring” (1962), set off an alarm about the poisonous nature of chemical pesticides and eventually DDT was banned under the Stockholm Convention in 1972. Unfortunately, Carson didn’t live to see her hard work come to fruition. She died of breast cancer in 1964.

Following Carson there came a decade of significant environmental progress, from the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and Earth Day in 1970 to the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act a few years later. At the international level, the Stockholm Convention in 1972 led to the creation of the United Nations’ Environmental Program and discussions at the global level of the importance of the environment.

Closer to home, local environmental visionary Tim McClure started working to reduce society’s impact on the environment through recycling in 1976. His efforts lead to the creation of the Summit Recycling Project, an organization dedicated to collecting materials for recycling and reuse. From his humble beginning, McClure instilled a sense of environmental ethic in our mountain community. Although he found it hard to gain traction with government funders, he worked hard to make sure his organization served the needs of a growing community. Unfortunately, his efforts were shut down in 1983 due to a lack of funding. McClure died in an avalanche near French Gulch two years later.

In honor of McClure, the High Country Conservation Center will hold the 26th annual Tim McClure Benefit on Saturday, March 7. Doors open at 6 p.m. at the Ten Mile Room in Breckenridge. Tickets are on sale now at

So come on down and enjoy live music by High Five, belly dancers and a silent auction; it’s a chance to honor local community members in their sustainability and environmental efforts with HC3’s Green Scene Awards. And remember, we could all still learn a thing or two from the amazing visionaries who came before us.

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