8 Naturalists That Changed Outdoor History

Whether you know it or not, you’ve most likely been to a park that employs a Naturalist. Naturalists are many things but in the most common definition, they are typically the ranger who manages the Nature Center at the park, does the speaking engagements, leads hikes, and plans special events. You may run across them as they rove around the campground of the park, showing off cool stuff like live local wildlife. You may also very well find them out on a trail somewhere, studying the plant life, snarfing around for bugs, or checking up on an important plot of trees.

In a historical sense however, Naturalists are the folks who helped promote and educate the general public about the need for untouched wilderness. They were the folks who basically started the outdoor tourism industry in America, and we have them to thank for all of the great (though for a time, recently shut down…different story) outdoor destinations that we all love today. At the very least, they helped to further thinking in regard to nature, the importance of preservation, and the romantic idea of living free of materialism. Here are eight figures who were instrumental in fighting for our right to be outdoorsy. 


John Muir
He is affectionately known as the “Father of the National Parks,” so he obviously belongs on this list. Muir was perhaps the most pure definition of “outdoor enthusiast” that the country has ever seen. An extremely prolific writer, he also petitioned Congress for the National Parks Act, which later led to the establishment of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. A tireless traveler in his early days, Muir once walked from Indiana to Florida, simply to see the sights along the way. Once in Florida, he hopped a ship to Cuba, and then to New York, and eventually to California. He had few other interests than studying the flora and fauna of each region, and funded his travels by doing odd jobs as a sawyer or mill worker. He even helped claimed Wrangel Island in Alaska for the United States. To top it off, he reportedly once camped alone with President Theodore Roosevelt during an expedition to aid in his efforts to establish federally-controlled natural lands. 

Freeman Tilden

Freeman Tilden
Tilden was one of the most instrumental figures in paving the way for Naturalists today through “interpretation” of nature (many Naturalists’ job titles are formally “Interpretive Naturalist” nowadays). A quote from one of his works pretty much sums up the thought process behind the importance of Naturalists everywhere; “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.” An acclaimed writer, Tilden all worked all over the United States with the National Park Service to improve their staff’s abilities of interpreting to visitors. His books “Interpreting Our Heritage” and “The State Parks – Their Meaning in American Life” are considered standards in the field. 

John James Audubon
One might not think that a painter should be included in a list of such integral Naturalists, but Audubon was the publisher of one of the most famous ornithological works of all time – “Birds of America.” During his expeditions, he discovered 25 new bird species, and greatly aided in public understanding of bird anatomy and physiology. Charles Darwin was a student of Audubon, and quoted him a few times in “On Origin of Species,” which obviously became a lightning rod for scientific thought. Though he struggled with crushing debt during certain spans of his life, Audubon eventually succeeded in his work. The National Audubon Society, which focuses on bird-related ecology is named after him, and hey…his portrait hangs in the White House. 


Florence Merriam
Merriam was one of the first widely-known female ornithologists in American history. She was a pioneer in the field, as she began studying bird behavior as opposed to physical appearance, and railed against the mistreatment, unnecessary killing, and interstate trade of the winged creatures. She became interested in nature at an early age, as she grew up in a family of amateur and professional naturalists (her father corresponded with John Muir regularly), and studied at Smith College as well as Stanford University. After marrying Vernon Bailey (also a naturalist), the couple began spreading their knowledge throughout the country during long and vast trips. While collecting new specimens, they also made it a point to encourage children to take up an interest in the natural sciences. She was a founding member of the Audubon Society in D.C., where she taught many classes on basic elements of ornithology, published several written works, and even has a bird named in her honor, a subspecies of the California Mountain Chickadee, Parus gambeli bailyae. 

Enos Mills

Enos Mills
Known as the “Father of Rocky Mountain National Park,” Mills was the original mountain conqueror. He first ascended Longs Peak at 15. He would go on to do so over 40 times alone, and well over 300 more as a guide. In a move that makes him one of the first paid Naturalists ever, he served as the Colorado State Snow Observer, in which he was paid to tromp around measuring the snowfall so as to try to predict the following year’s runoff. He was a pioneer in the trail guiding field as well, as he founded Longs Peak Inn, where he would host folks that he was going to guide to the top, often sharing stories and giving talks before or after their ascent. He was instrumental in getting the Longs Peak area designated as a National Park, and Mills Lake in RMNP is his namesake. Despite overcoming tuberculosis and several other illnesses during his lifetime, Enos Mills was the historic incarnation of the avid mountaineers of today.


Rachel Carson
The only Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient on the list, Carson was a big deal. A prolific writer, Carson is also credited with opening the country’s eyes to the evils of pollution in the 1950’s. She railed against synthetic chemical use in her book “Silent Spring,” which played a big part in the government banning the use of DDT. Her work also inspired a movement that eventually led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. In 1936, she became only the second female to obtain a full-time professional position with the Bureau of Fisheries when she received a position as a junior aquatic biologist. Though she had a successful career with the federal entity, she is best known for her publications and her influence behind getting the use of dangerous chemicals ended. 

John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed)

John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed)
The famous figure of a gaunt chap sporting a tin pot as a cap is often cartoonized, but John Chapman was a real person, and he did one hell of a lot of good in the conservation field during his lifetime. Though common legend portrays him as running willy-nilly around the countryside spreading apple seeds everywhere, Chapman was a skilled nurseryman. He played an integral part in agriculture in the Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana region (at the time, that region was considered “the West”). A little known fact – most of the apple trees that Chapman planted in his earlier days produced largely inedible fruit, as they were primarily used to make hard cider. Johnny Appleseed, for all intensive purposes, was a pioneer alcohol distributor. 


Caroline Dormon
Caroline Dormon was a true pioneer for preservation and beautification of our natural lands. Though possessing a bachelor’s degree in literature and art, she had always held a strong interest in nature. After teaching for a brief stint, she began working with the Forestry Department in her home state of Louisiana. She eventually played a major role in the establishment of Kisatchie National Forest in 1930. She was a naturalist in every aspect, as she worked in ornithology, botany, and several other nature-related fields. She helped in the development of what is now Hodges Gardens State Park (it became a state entity in 2007). She also played a hand in developing what is now the Louisiana State Arboretum, which spans over 300 acres. Dormon was also a somewhat prolific writer, having several books published, including “Wildflowers of Lousiana,” “Forest Trees of Louisiana,” “Flowers Native to the Deep South,” “Natives Preferred,” “Southern Indian Boy,” and “Bird Talk.” Because of her extensive reach in terms of influence in Louisiana’s natural history, there are a number of trails, visitor centers, and even a new eco-friendly junior high named in her honor.