Sierra Club: John Muir Chapter

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Question: What issues face Wisconsin's wilderness, and what steps has the Wisconsin chapter of the Sierra Club taken to help better conserve these wilderness areas?

In 1963, Norm O'Neill founded the John Muir Chapter or JMC of the Sierra Club. The John Muir Chapter is the Wisconsin branch of the Sierra Club. The JMC has over 15,000 members and supporters throughout the state. Within this chapter there is an Executive Committee that contains 15 elected and appointed volunteer leaders, six local groups, three specialty sections, and three paid staff members located at the Madison office. The mission of the Sierra club and the John Muir chapter is to "explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources; to educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out those objectives." [1] The conservation priorities that the John Muir chapter focus on are: adapting clean energy instead of coal, adapting clean transportation instead of using oil, blocking harmful mining, protecting native wildlife and forests, and protecting water. To achieve these goals the JMC educates people of issues, uses direct legislative and grass root lobbying, and litigation. Another way the JMC tries to accomplish their goals is by helping to elect environmental supporters to local, state, and federal offices.

John Muir

John Muir an American Conservationist, 1907.
John Muir, 1907. Source: [1]

John Muir is most famously known for being the founding president of the Sierra Club. As well as, a farmer, inventor, sheepherder, explorer, naturalist, conversationalist, and a writer.[2] As a child, John Muir and his family were first generation Scottish immigrants. Muir didn't have an easy childhood, he had a spotty education and his father, Daniel Muir, kept him busy clearing land and farming. Which didn't leave much time for intellectual release. As a result, "John had to sneak his reading under the covers at night or down in the cellar before day break." [3]

Muir often used his life story as a way to inspire people to embrace wilderness. When Muir would travel the Scottish countryside as a boy he described it as making him feel "glorious" and "free."[4] In 1849, when John Muir was eleven years old, he and his family moved to Wisconsin, where they owned and worked on Hickory Hill Farm.

By his early twenties, John Muir had become "clever, observant, and resourceful, at home in the intersection of domestic and natural landscapes." [5] So he decided to leave his home without his parents blessing and set off on his own adventures. While on his own, John Muir lived in Madison, Wisconsin and even attended the university for several of years. After Madison Muir moved into the Canadian wilderness to avoid being drafted in the Civil War. When the war ended, Muir moved to Indianapolis where he became a machinist. This position didn't last long, due to a work place injury that left Muir temporarily blind. Once Muir healed he focused his energy on studying the creations of God. To do this, he set out on a thousand mile journey through the American south. This exploration inspired Muir to challenge the idea that humans have dominion over the natural world and imagine a new environmental rationale. From which he created this question: "Why should man value himself more than a small part of the one great unit of creation?"[6]

As the years passed John Muir found himself living in California's Sierra Mountains, or as he called it the "Range of Light." The more Muir hiked, the more he felt compelled him to capture nature's stunning terrain. So Muir began taking notes on what he was experiencing. Notes turned into correspondences, which turned into newspaper articles, and finally ended up in books. In each piece that Muir wrote he tried to realign wilderness with the larger world in which it moved. He did this by writing things like, "Ink cannot tell the glow that lights me at this moment in turning to the mountains." [7] And it worked, John Muir's work impacted people in a way that had not been done before. His experiences on the edge of civilization inspired people to get involved and help preserve wild areas across the nation. It also helped get the federal government to step in and avert environmental disasters, like logging and mining, that were taking place across the nation.

Sierra Club

In November 1889, Robert Underwood Johnson asked John Muir, "Why don't you start an association?"[8] This was in response to creating a strategy for establishing a Yosemite national park, and thus the Sierra Club was formed. At the time, the University of California already had ideas to

The Sierra Club's logo with the foundation date of 1892 included
The Sierra Club logo. Source: [2]

start an Alpine Club, which is where the name Sierra Club evolved from. John Muir believed that this organization would "be able to do something for wilderness and make the mountains glad."[9] By May of 1892 the club had 27 individuals who were interested in the cause that the Sierra Club was fighting for. On June 4, 1892 the club's articles of incorporation were presented at one of the first meetings of the organization. The articles of incorporation required nine directors to fulfill a hierarchy for recreational, educational, and political purposes. Which included, "to explore, enjoy, and render accessible the mountain regions of the Pacific Coast; to publish authentic information concerning them; to enlist the support and cooperation of people and the government in preserving the forests and other natural features of the Sierra Nevada Mountains."[10] Incorporating recreation into the club allowed not only adults be to be active in wilderness, but to also involve the youth. This provided people the opportunity to hike, kayak, and even bike wild areas gave people a chance to experience nature hands on. By the following winter the club had recruited 283 charter members. The club's main purposes originated from its founder's values, which where to share, protect, and be aware of natural areas. These values were mainly aimed towards the west coast and the wilderness/mountains that were there. However, as time went on the club started to expand its views. That is why the Sierra Club has dedicated itself to the analyzing and defending earth's ecological and scenic resources, such as wetlands, woodlands, plains, and many more natural areas.

Sierra Club- John Muir Chapter

The Wisconsin chapter of the Sierra Club acquired is name in honor of Muir's incredible efforts to preserve wilderness areas throughout the nation. In addition, in view of the fact that Muir is the founder of the Sierra Club and also resided in Wisconsin during his youth; the Wisconsin chapter was dedicated to him. In 2013, the John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club celebrated its fiftieth year. One year later, The JMC joined forces with the National Heritage Land trust or NHLT among other conservative organizations to purchase 198 acres of prairie, woodland, and wetland habitat. This also included 38 acres of the original John Muir family farm. In addition to purchasing land for conservation, the JMC of the Sierra club also works to prevent destructive mining, protect water, protect the native forests and wildlife, and change to more energy efficient resources in order to slow down climate change.

Destructive Mining

In Wisconsin, mining has been taking place for decades due to the amount of zinc and lead located in the state. This mining had caused surface water and groundwater to become tainted in southeast Wisconsin. As a result in the 1980s, the Wisconsin legislature passed a major mining legislation that recognized the harm that "all forms of metallic mining, whether iron, copper, lead, zinc, or precious metals, are inherently destructive to the environment and have significant impacts on local communities due to its "boom or bust" nature."[11] In other words because mining requires resources to be found in order to make a profit, mining companies don't stop mining until a profit is made or it is realized that there aren't any resources left to mine in the area. In 2011, GTAC proposed to build the Penokee Taconite mine in Wisconsin. This mine could become the largest open-pit mine in Wisconsin's history. By March 7, 2013 new legislation was written known as Act 1. This new legislation "demolished environmental safeguards related to mining, eliminated public input, reduced revenues to local communities, and rushed the permit review process"[12] and that's just the beginning. It also allows mining waste to be dumped in delicate areas, and allows groundwater contamination with little health protections. In June 2013, GTAC hired Bulletproof Securities to guard the area while wearing black masks and carrying semi-automatic guns. But because Bulletproof Securities is an out of state company, they didn't have the proper license to legally carry and operate weapons in Wisconsin. Because of this they were forced to leave the state. In response to these events, the Sierra Club filed a complaint with the Iron County DA and the Wisconsin Department of Safety and professional Services (DSPS). However, the DA didn't press charges and the Wisconsin DSPS granted Bulletproof its operating permit. Which allows them to return to the state at anytime.

This is a Gogebic Taconite open pit iron mine in northern Wisconsin
Open pit iron mine in northern Wisconsin. Source:[3]

Frac Sand Mining is also an issue in Wisconsin. Although the state doesn't have any notable natural gas deposits, it does contain high quality silica sand that is needed in Fracking to help open-up fissures to allow fossil fuels to escape. In order to acquire the sand, mining companies use open pit and hilltop removal mining. these procedures create pits, pollutes rivers and stream with sediment from containment ponds, harms quality of life, overuses water, and can poison the air. In Wisconsin there are now "141 Frac Sand facilities, including mines, processing plants, and rail load-outs."[13]

To help fight against this destructive mining the John Muir Chapter is encouraging people to attend public hearings and are educating people on the dangers associated with Taconite and Frac Sand mining. The JMC is also asking for a moratorium of any Frac Sand mining permits, up till the state administers a study of the impacts and the capability of local control. They are also trying to repeal the Bad River watershed Destruction Act. If this act is repealed it would give a voice back to the citizens, restore protections against metallic mining, and protect communities from the economic risks that can come from destructive mining.

Protecting Water

Wisconsin's border is formed by two of the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. The State also contains an additional 15,000 inland lakes and 12,600 rivers.[14] These waters provide habitats for native species and provide recreational release for the people how visit them. One of the Sierra Club- John Muir Chapter's objectives is to "ensure that Wisconsin's waters remain clean and safe for current and future generations.".[15]

Over half of Wisconsin's population depend on groundwater for drinking water. But with the high capacity well pumping that's taking place in the state, groundwater levels are dropping off almost over half of what the original levels were. This pumping is also extremely lowering surface water levels. One of the things that the JMC is doing to help with this problem is they are working to maintain the DNR's authority to consider the overall effects of high capacity wells. The John Muir Chapter is also working to implement strong statewide water conservation policies in order to protect Wisconsin's water resources. In addition the JMC is dedicated to protecting Wisconsin's water quality and the Great Lakes. They plan on doing this by supporting stronger waste spreading rules, restoring the control over livestock siting decisions to the locals, and supporting the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. As well as, supporting strong Great Lake Compact rules.

Protecting Native Forests an Wildlife

Wisconsin had been working to get the grey wolves off the endangered species list and was successful in 2012. However, Act 169 was passed and changed everything. With Act 169 in place a 4.5 month hunting season was put into place. Night hunting also became allowed, as well as, the targeting of breeding females, and the use of dogs in wolf hunting. The Sierra Club- John Muir Chapter has voiced their concerns on this topic, and in 2014-15 the JMC spoke out to discuss and try to alter the wolf harvest quota of 156 to no success. The JMC has also launched the "Wild Wisconsin's campaign to protect Native Forests and Wildlife... to restore science-based management of natural resources; ensure that a broad set of recreational uses are welcomed on public lands and waters; and protect cherished water, land, and wildlife or generations to come."[16] They also support science-based deer management policies that focus on protecting public health, maintain natural tree growth, and reduce disease.

Final Thoughts

In all, it is clear that the Sierra Club- John Muir Chapter is active in there mission for conservation. In order to make waves and see change the JMC works with other conservation organizations, community members, and state and federal officials to lobby legislation, educate communities, and provide outings to get communities involve in the conservation of Wisconsin's wild places.


  1. "About Us," Sierra Club- Wisconsin John Muir Chapter, Accessed April 19, 2016.
  2. "John Muir: A Brief Biography," The Sierra Club, Accessed April 10, 2016.
  3. Char Miller, "A Sylvan Prospect: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and Early Twentieth-Century Conservatism," in "American Wilderness: A New History," edited by Michael Lewis, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 133.
  4. Miller, "A Sylvan Prospect," 132.
  5. Miller, "A Sylvan Prospect," 133.
  6. Miller, "A Sylvan Prospect," 133.
  7. Miller, "A Sylvan Prospect," 134.
  8. Cohen, Michael P., "The History of the Sierra Club 1892-1970," (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 9.
  9. Cohen, "The History of the Sierra Club 1892-1970," 9.
  10. Cohen, "The History of the Sierra Club 1892-1970," 9.
  11. "blocking destructive mining," Sierra Club- Wisconsin John Muir Chapter, Accessed April 27, 2016.
  12. "blocking destructive mining," Sierra Club- Wisconsin John Muir Chapter, Accessed April 27, 2016.
  13. "blocking destructive mining," Sierra Club- Wisconsin John Muir Chapter, Accessed April 27, 2016.
  14. "Protecting Water," Sierra Club- Wisconsin John Muir Chapter, Accessed April 27, 2016.
  15. "Protecting Water," Sierra Club- Wisconsin John Muir Chapter, Accessed April 27, 2016.
  16. "Protecting Water," Sierra Club- Wisconsin John Muir Chapter, Accessed April 27, 2016.

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