Upon Visiting Hetch Hetchy

First, this short essay will avoid many of the headier sub-arguments about wilderness and changing opinions of utilizing the land in the United States.  They’re too complex to hash out in a readable amount of space and probably would bore the average reader. Also, most Americans will approach this controversy with a strictly utilitarian mindset. That, underneath this issue, lies a very simple “if, then…” proposition. In the case of the Hetch Hetchy valley, that means, if the city of San Francisco needs water and the best plan happens to involve damming a river in a protected National Park several hundred miles away, so be it. Dam the river. Dam the falls. Damn the land.

I can only vainly attempt to dispel those impulses. There is an undeniable Majesty in a land that’s simultaneously harsh, inaccessible, Biblically gorgeous, and cultivated for upper class enjoyment.  As a forbearance, just keep in mind, alternative propositions existed to damming the Tuolumne at the Hetch Hetchy valley.  They were not as efficient and would probably have required several dams throughout the foothills outside the boundaries of the National Park. However, do not make the false dichotomy between the evil dam builders and the idealist tree-huggers with no viable alternatives.  San Francisco needed water and there were proposals that avoided Yosemite National Park and the Sierras altogether. But, for some reason this valley, the famed Yosemite valley’s twin, now looks like this:

Instead of this:

“Mr. Roosevelt,” he asked at one point, “when are you going to get beyond the boyishness of killing things… are you not getting far enough along to leave that off?” Taken aback, the president replied, “Muir, I guess you are right.”[i]

Two different schools of thought arose with an approach towards America’s lush environment and natural resources. One school, led by head of the U.S. Forest Service Gifford Pinchot, argued for “standing guard to make sure it was used in the wisest, most efficient way possible.”  Pinchot was the head of the Utilitarians.  They approached nature’s bountiful resources as something to be protected, but also used. OK, so one scholarly question digression: How much can something be used without being changed, fundamentally and inalterably, forever?

The opposing camp was led by John Muir, a devoutly religious Scotsman, who found in the United States such serene and Biblical beauty that he championed protecting as much of these beautiful spots as possible.  Muir argued for preserving the wild places, almost always because of some strong Judeo-Christian impulse, and in such a way that the land could not be exploited for resources.

These Christian impulses played a large part in America’s early national parks. The first protected places were “Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Rainier, Zion”[ii] where God indelibly lived in the granite walls of high peaks, the veils of cascading falls, the high trees, greenery, etc. These places were “sublime” and “less sublime landscapes simply did not appear worthy of such protection; not until the 1940s, for instance, would the first swamp be honored, in Everglades National Park.”[iii] And lest I beat this dead horse, swamps are places of serpents and dragons, bubbling cauldrons of deeply buried gases, They are hot, humid, and forbidding. Hellish, even.

The truly astounding aspect of this argument has nothing to do with the dam and more to do with the number of people who protested: “that so many people fought to prevent its completion… Fifty years earlier, such opposition would have been unthinkable.”[iv]

This change in popular opinion occurred largely because of Muir’s presentation of Hetch Hetchy, “a wonderfully exact counterpart of the famous valley” [Yosemite]. Something more striking to the modern day visitor are Muir’s depictions of “flowery gardens and groves” and tranquil meadows of the valley floor. Muir makes one final comparison in his article “On Saving Hetch Hetchy”: “the walls are less sublime…  than those of Yosemite, its groves, gardens, and broad, spacious meadows are more beautiful and picturesque [than Yosemite’s].”

Now, instead, just a glassy, calm desert of water. To access the popularity of the Yosemite valley, he compared the Bridal Veil fall with the Tueeulala: “the most beautiful fall I have ever seen.” He contrasted two falls in the valley “Tueeulala whispers that the Almighty dwells in peace; Wapama is the thunder of His chariot-wheels in power.” These religious connotations and linkage to Indian names (while abandoned mostly in the Yosemite valley) are deliberate – and successful – attempts by Muir to trigger an odd nostalgia in the American psyche. Muir successfully championed a surge in opinion against damming the Hetch Hetchy because he appealed to the Upper Class who’s vacation trend du jour lay at the floor of the Yosemite valley (Ahwahnhee Lodge). He also made an argument that contemporary working Americans could understand, about God and Country, specifically that God lives in this land and one only has to go find Him in the rocks and trees, far away from the grime and personal powerlessness of post-industrial America.

Today, the thunder of Wapama is now lost to the roar of the O’Shaughnessy dam, a perpetual white noise sound that travelers to woods and forest usually seek to escape: the constant intermittent drone of passing cars, the hiss and chug of air conditioning units, planes far overhead, etc. Now, in the Hetch Hetchy valley, a reminder of the home you’re trying to escape.  A perpetual roar of power and water being supplied 4 hours away to San Francisco.  Not to suggest there’s some major sin at hand, but a thought, just a thought. There’s nothing wrong with thinking about what’s happening in the background. Probably, also, the reason why Hetch Hetchy has become so unpopular compared to its “twin”, the Yosemite valley. The original argument that a “lake” would improve the valley, is just as laughable now with proof as it was then without.


[i] Nash, Roderick. “Wilderness and the American Mind”

[ii] Warren “American Environmental History”

[iii] Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness…”

[iv] ibid.

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