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.