CRM Journal

Book Review

Preserving the Living Past: John C. Merriam's Legacy in the State and National Parks

By Stephen R. Mark. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005; xv + 204 pp., photographs, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index; cloth $39.95.


John C. Merriam (1869-1945) is a character with whom many students of the history of conservation in the United States may have a nodding acquaintance. Those who have written about the early years of the National Park Service, about the preservation of California's coastal redwoods, or about the origins of the wilderness movement may have acquired some knowledge of his exploits. For those who have thirsted for more about Merriam, and the historical context in which he lived and worked, Stephen Mark's biography will prove a welcome, satisfying tonic. In succinct yet entertaining prose, Mark succeeds at shining much needed light on this remarkable man.

Merriam was born and raised in rural Iowa, and during his youth his insatiable curiosity about the fossils located near his boyhood home guided the direction of his early professional life. After college, he taught in his hometown, but his love of vertebrate paleontology—then an embryonic science—led him to the University of California, where he worked with the popular, well-regarded geologist Joseph Le Conte. Merriam earned his doctorate there in 1893 and joined the school's faculty the following year. To all accounts, he appeared headed toward the life of an academic. He gained early notoriety for his fossil discoveries in the John Day country of central Oregon, at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, and elsewhere.

Merriam came of age, however, in the midst of a revolution in attitudes toward land conservation in the United States. As Mark notes so adroitly, Merriam's professional expertise, combined with his passion for land preservation, brought him into contact with leaders in the private and public sectors and opened the door to a host of emerging opportunities. Through his academic work, he met Stephen Mather during the critical years preceding the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916 (Mather would become the first director of the Service). Beginning in 1917, he and two colleagues began to work toward the preservation of California's majestic coast redwood groves. They helped establish the Save-the-Redwoods League the following year. Merriam's colleagues soon moved on to other areas of interest; Merriam, however, stuck to it and became the League's first executive director. He played a key role in the group for more than 20 years, working equally well with lumber companies, state officials, conservationists, and philanthropists. Merriam was a "doer," and a chronicle of his life is a testament to his manifold accomplishments.

As Mark's narrative makes clear, Merriam was a multifaceted personality, and each of the chapters highlight his major contributing roles. Separate treatments are devoted to his work in paleontology, his redwoods work, his views on interpretation (an early precursor to the presently popular "parks as classrooms" concept), his views on wilderness, his role in the growing state parks movement, and his philosophical views on nature. Mark is correct in separating these roles in this fashion, though the numerous times in which those roles inevitably overlapped result in some repetition and confusion.

Mark has done a masterful job of detailing the biographical highlights of this remarkable scientist and park advocate and of squarely placing his achievements in context. Through Mark's research, we learn much about the growth of vertebrate paleontology as a specialization. We are apprised of the precarious financial status of the University of California during the 1890s. We gain keen insights into the role of philanthropy in early 20th-century land preservation, and we learn that the public purchase of California's redwood groves during the 1920s and 1930s engendered little of the acrimony and confrontation that characterized similar efforts during the 1960s and 1970s.

Park managers and cultural resource specialists will appreciate that Merriam held many views—about wilderness, park interpretation, and so forth—considered progressive and current even by today's standards. Those views, however, were too far-reaching and impractical to gain much political traction during the 1920s and 1930s. Although at times rather brusque and aloof, he had a personality, emotional drive, and intellect that earned him justifiable renown in American conservation circles. Merriam certainly deserves an esteemed place in the pantheon of early 20th-century conservation leaders, and Mark's biography affords readers a new, clearer sense of his accomplishments.

Frank Norris
Alaska Regional Office
National Park Service