Some people just like to get things done

By John Clayton

Although I’ve lived in a small Western town for 30 years now, I have never known much about one of its fundamental institutions, the service club. Many small-town residents still center their lives on Lions, Elks, Rotary or similar organizations.

Not me: I’m not a joiner. Yet as our national culture moves farther away from such settings for broad discussions, I worry that I’m part of the problem.

A while ago when I was asked to speak at our local Rotary Club, I hesitated, picturing white guys networking with each other and complaining about newcomers. But I had published a book, and publishers instruct authors to market wherever you can.

Upon arrival, I cataloged the changes since my last Rotary visit decades ago: The president was a 20-something woman, we ordered off a menu, and people seemed less guarded.

Our local Rotary, I learned, was known as relatively liberal, and some of the older men seemed pretty vigorous. The faces reflected the town’s lily-white complexion, but I noticed that the room contained Republicans and Democrats, evangelicals and atheists, entrepreneurs and socialist-leaning nonprofit workers, feminists and fans of traditional gender roles.

Of course we didn’t talk about any of that. As one man said, the point of the club was to avoid ideology in order to focus on projects that help people. Perhaps that’s why they’d invited an author — to be supportive of local literature.

So we talked about something close to my heart, and as it turned out, to theirs. My book, Natural Rivals, chronicles a 1890s collaboration between Sierra Club founder John Muir and U.S. Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot. The two men are often seen as enemies: Muir’s preservation philosophy dictated a hands-off policy to nature, while Pinchot advocated aggressive management of natural resources to provide for human needs.

So when Muir and Pinchot camped together in 1896, alongside Montana’s Lake McDonald in what would later become Glacier National Park, did they argue about whether to cut trees or dam valleys? No. They set aside their ideological differences to focus on a bigger threat.

The then-new idea of public lands — national parks, national forests, and other lands held collectively and managed with public involvement by our democratic government — was controversial. While disagreeing about the priorities for those lands, Muir and Pinchot were united in believing that public lands mattered.

The Rotarians I met immediately connected with this message. That’s what lively small town folk do: Set aside differences to get things done.

By contrast, in metropolitan areas, I’ve found that people resist the message about collaborating on common goals, especially when I suggest it could work today. Surely the 1890s were different, they say. Ideologies were different, or personalities were different, or the stakes were not as high.

To me, the difference is that today we cluster in like-minded neighborhoods. Our stores, restaurants and media are all ideologically segregated. We wrap our identity in ideology. And we forget how to find common ground.

I say “we” because I do it, too. My attempted justification is the one I mentioned: I’m not a joiner.

But John Muir wasn’t a joiner either. The individualistic mountaineer wasn’t even an official member of the blue-ribbon commission visiting Montana’s Lake McDonald. He just decided to tag along so that he could converse with — and listen to — people who disagreed with him.

In the dramatic results of those conversations, Muir’s essays and interviews of 1896 and 1897 merged his ideas with Pinchot’s to help persuade citizens of the value of public lands.

If we still think of today’s Rotarians as old-fashioned, maybe it’s because they attract members of all stripes who embrace idealistic values about helping people help themselves. I learned, for example, that they work to end the scourge of polio internationally while providing scholarships to high school kids. And they don’t have a political test for pitching in.

They just pick their causes, and then they fight for them.

John Clayton is a contributor to Writers on the Range,, an independent nonprofit that promotes lively dialog about the West. He lives in Montana and is the author of several books including Natural Rivals: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and the Creation of America’s Public Lands.

This column was published in the following newspapers:

04/17/2023 Vail Daily Vail CO
04/17/2023 Park Record Park City UT
04/17/2023 Denver Post Denver CO
04/18/2023 Whitehall Ledger Whitehall MT
04/18/2023 south dakota searchlight Pierre SD
04/19/2023 Wallowa County Chieftain Enterprise OR
04/19/2023 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
04/17/2023 Hillsboro Times News Hillsboros OR
04/17/2023 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
04/17/2023 Tigard Times Tigard OR
04/17/2023 Beaverton Valley Times Beaverton OR
04/17/2023 Sherwood Gazette Portland OR
04/20/2023 Jackson Hole News & Guide Jackson Hole WY
04/20/2023 Craig Daily Press Craig co
04/21/2023 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
04/21/2023 Idaho Mountain Express Ketchum ID
04/20/2023 Taos News Taos NM
04/20/2023 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
04/20/2023 Herald-Journal Logan UT
04/19/2023 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
04/22/2023 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
04/22/2023 capital Journal Pierre SD
04/22/2023 The Daily Yonder Whitesburg Ky
04/19/2023 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
04/28/2023 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
04/28/2023 Laramie Boomerang Laramie WY
05/01/2023 Del Norte Triplicate Crescent City CA
04/26/2023 Gunnison Times Gunnison CO
04/25/2023 Canyon Courier Courier Co
04/25/2023 Jeffco Transcript Jefferson County CO
04/26/2023 Limon Leader Limon CO
04/27/2023 Clear Creek Current Idaho Springs Co
04/26/2023 Arvada Press Arvada Co
05/04/2023 Methow Valley News Twisp WA
05/13/2023 Aspen Times Aspen CO
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Suzanne Elizabeth Bott, PhD
9 months ago

John, Your article speaks to my heart — the concept of setting aside our differences and working together for the greater good. Service clubs do much of the heavy lifting that politicians can’t. My late father was a dedicated Rotarian, including serving a couple of terms as president. Their motto, “Service Above Self” says it all. I love this story and look forward to reading Natural Rivals. Thank you so much for bringing this story to light. Bravo, Sir!

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