The other day, our Steinbeck cultural tour made the journey from Monterey, Calif., to Pinnacles National Park. There is no clear and obvious Steinbeck connection, except that the National Park is part of the Gabilan Mountain system, and that range marked the eastern boundary of the Salinas River Valley, sacred to Steinbeck and the source location of several of his novels, including his great late work “East of Eden.” The Pinnacles are a recent National Park (since Jan. 10, 2013), but the site has been protected as a National Monument since January 16, 1908. That’s where Theodore Roosevelt comes in.
Roosevelt, the greatest presidential conservationist, designated 18 National Monuments between June 1906, when the Antiquities Act was passed, until March 4, 1909, when he grudgingly relinquished the White House to his handpicked but ultimately disappointing successor William Howard Taft.
Roosevelt never saw the spectacular Pinnacles, but he hearkened to the urging of his friend, David Starr Jordan, the president of Stanford University. Jordan was a serious ichthyologist, the author of “A Guide to the Study of Fishes,” an important book that TR had on his shelves at Sagamore Hill. Jordan believed the Pinnacles, a stunning 23-million-year-old set of volcanic plugs, home to 149 species of birds, 49 mammals, 22 reptiles, 69 butterflies and a whopping 400 species of bees, should be given permanent federal protection.
Roosevelt was instantly convinced. He set aside 2,500 acres, the heart of the Pinnacles themselves, but the Monument was enlarged over time until by 1969 it included 26,000 acres.
It’s a stunning place, lightly visited, accessible only by a narrow asphalt road. We hiked to the top — strenuous but not lung-coughing — and watched at least a dozen of the world’s last condors soar overhead or perch on the high rocks waiting for something to scavenge.
For a long time, I sat on the east face of one of the highest Pinnacles and looked into the American West from the other direction for a change. And I gained even greater respect for Theodore Roosevelt. His footprint is everywhere. His enthusiasm for protecting the most beautiful landscapes in America was profound, unnecessary, not particularly advantageous politically, often very controversial and not at the center of the significant social problems the United States faced as it braced for the 20th century.
Roosevelt knew what he did not protect would be destroyed, exploited, compromised or turned into luxury mansions for the super-rich. He believed the great natural beauty of America belonged to all of the people, and he insisted that the United States practice democracy in its public lands and not turn the most sublime places over to the most privileged as their private pleasure grounds.
There is no one quite like him. I once asked the great environmental legal theorist Charles Wilkinson of the University of Colorado if it is possible to exaggerate TR’s achievement in conservation. “No,” he said, “his achievement and his influence have been incalculable.”
Stanford’s President Jordan was one of the founders of the Sierra Club. He had the ear of the president of the United States. He used his power — including his intellectual gifts — on behalf of the Enlightenment. TR could not visit every property he chose to designate for protection, but he had a brilliant environmental network, and he trusted his friends in the field.
Steinbeck does not write about Theodore Roosevelt. He was a friend of FDR and later JFK and LBJ, but my instinct is that Steinbeck would have found TR’s massive personality trying.
I did not know what I am now writing when I ventured to Pinnacles National Park. Had I known I would have been better prepared to drink in the glories of the landscape. But I knew the Pinnacles belong to the whole people of the United States thanks to Theodore Roosevelt, and I know he would have loved the place had his hectic life permitted him to climb up into the empyrean of the condor.