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10 Republicans from another era who helped the environment

May 3, 2010, 12:40 p.m.
John Conness

Photo: Yosemite Research Library

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John Conness

The Civil War-era senator from California must have been a cool guy. Conness immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland when he was 15 and then became a California gold rush forty-niner.

In May 1964, Conness sponsored legislation that did something nobody had ever done before (apparently in human history): It set aside a large tract of unspoiled land,  the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, for future generations. President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill, which ceded the land over to the state of California for the purpose of preservation. It turned out that California did a terrible job of protecting Yosemite, and Congress was forced to correct the error by turning Yosemite into a national park a quarter-century later.

Conness later served as a pallbearer in Lincoln's funeral procession, but he was turned out of office after he forcefully supported the civil rights of Chinese workers and other minorities. Still, in his brief Senate career, Conness set a mind-boggling precedent – that a group people could value nature enough to protect and preserve it. Those people were the American people, and the United States had established itself as a leader in land conservation.