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Hetch Hetchy


An iconic moment in environmental history is the construction of the Hetch Hetchy Dam. San Francisco, always desperate for fresh water supplies, looked to the Sierra Nevada to quench its thirst by the late 19th century. However, most of the Sierra’s water was owned by mining companies, used for hydraulic mining, by which high-pressure water was used to hose down mountains and uncover gold.

Hydraulic mining, Nevada County, CA, 1866

Yosemite National Park held much of the Sierra’s unclaimed water. Yosemite was the first protected area in the United States. Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864, beginning the process of protecting this gorgeous and special place from development. In 1890, Yosemite became a national park. But San Francisco wanted that Yosemite water. The early conservationist movement valued the efficient use of resources over beauty. After the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, pressure to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley grew and gained the support of President Theodore Roosevelt and forester Gifford Pinchot.

At the same time, John Muir headed the Sierra Club, which he had founded in 1892. Although many members of these early climbing clubs around the West could be broadly construed as “conservationists,” Muir went beyond that ideology, arguing that Yosemite needed saving for its own sake. He famous wrote a friend, “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”

Hetch Hetchy Valley, 1907

From 1901 until 1913, Muir led the Sierra Club in a campaign to protect Hetch Hetchy from these dam plans. One can argue that this was the first (or one of the first) efforts at modern grassroots lobbying. Muir wrote to his friend Robert Underwood Johnson:

We held a Sierra Club meeting last Saturday–passed resolutions and fanned each other to a fierce white Hetch Hetchy head. I particularly urged that we must get everybody to write to Senators and the president keeping letters flying all next month thick as storm snow flakes, loaded with park pictures, short circulars, etc. Stir up all other park and playground clubs, women’s clubs, etc.

With some slight changes in language, this could be an environmental organizational meeting today.

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir had once been friends in the conservation movement, famously posing for this 1905 picture in Yosemite.

But after Muir came out against damming Hetch Hetchy, Roosevelt, Pinchot, and other leading conservationists turned on him, unable to understand his desire to value beauty over human use. Congress passed the Raker Act in 1913, allowing San Francisco to build the O’Shaughnessy Dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley. The dam was completed in 1923 and remains a black mark on our nation’s environmental history.

O’Shaughnessy Dam

So the question today is whether we should tear down the dam. This idea has floated around for awhile. San Francisco has the water capacity to replace the lost water from Hetch Hetchy. Republican congressman Dan Lundgren has asked the Department of Interior to look into whether San Francisco is using its water properly so we can tear down Hetch Hetchy. Given that this is Lundgren, it is probably a trick. In the 1980s, Don Hodel, Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, proposed much the same thing because he wanted to drive a wedge between two key components of California’s Democratic voting bloc–San Francisco and environmentalists. But the Times thinks it is an interesting idea that Salazar should explore.

It is an interesting idea and I don’t necessarily oppose tearing down the dam. But I do want to make one point in favor of keeping it up. National Park managers, whether the NPS or managers of the pre-1916 era, have long sought to erase unpleasant human histories from the parks. Early parks, including Yosemite, had significant importance to Native Americans who used them for hunting grounds. Park managers sought to eliminate this indigenous presence in order to present a place devoid of human history for tourists. Similarly, Great Smoky Mountains National Park tore down all the wealthy homes built in its popular Cades Cove to allow tourists to experience a idyllic pioneer drive of pre-modern living and wildlife.

The dam is part of Yosemite’s human history. There are many ways to present that history of course. Rangers could no doubt tell stories for the next half-century or more on natural regeneration after the dam came down. There’s a lot they could do with historical markers. And no doubt they would do that. But it’s also important to remember that national parks have human histories that need telling too. The parks’ sheer existence is a story about humans and what they came to value at a particular time and place. In the century plus since Yosemite was protected, humans have made all sorts of decisions about what would happen in that space. Damming Hetch Hetchy is one of those stories. Its existence is a monument to how early 20th century Americans thought about nature. There’s a lot of powerful stories to be told about that arrogance and I’d hate to see those stories disappear.

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