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Hetch Hetchy and America’s First Modern Conservation Fight

This episode of Treehuggers International originally aired on April 29, 2012, on KBZT FM 94/9. Thanks to Mike Marshall for his help making this program possible, with special thanks to Paul Lancour at KQED in San Francisco for his kind assistance.

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”  –  John Muir, 1901

With dams coming down along the Elwha River in Olympic National Park, and proposed dam removals along the Klamath and Snake rivers, how receptive are San Francisco city leaders to the idea of draining the O’Shaughnessy Dam and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley to its natural state?

The answer may depend on who you ask.

We asked Mike Marshall, executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy, a San Francisco-based organization that seeks to return the Hetch Hetchy Valley to its natural condition, while continuing to meet the water and power needs of the communities that depend upon the Tuolumne River.

Restore Hetch Hetchy is currently gearing up for it’s annual Muir’s March event, a multi-day trek through the backcountry of Yosemite National Park as participants walk in the footsteps of John Muir to raise awareness and resources for the campaign to restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley, culminating in a rally atop the O’Shaughnessy Dam.

Muir’s role in protecting and then preserving Yosemite, along with the area that became Sequoia National Park and dozens of other sites throughout the American, cannot be overstated. According to biographer Steven J. Holmes, Muir remains one of the “patron saints of 20th century American environmental activity.”

But as Muir aged and became recognized for his lifetime of conservation work, he entered into the last great battle of his career – one that may well have hastened the end of his life. The location was the Hetch Hetchy Valley in his beloved Yosemite National Park, and the fight was over the dam proposed to be built there by the city and county of San Francisco following the region’s catastrophic 1906 earthquake.

Often referred to as a rival in beauty and stature to Yosemite Valley, Hetch Hetchy was created over millions of years by the drainage of the Tuolumne River. Writing about Hetch Hetchy, John Muir said, “no holier temple has ever been consecrated.”

Unfortunately, despite Muir’s eloquent words and protests to the federal government, coupled with warnings about how building a dam at Hetch Hetchy and damming the Tuolumne River would forever violate the sanctity of the National Park ideal, the will of San Francisco’s business and establishment community held sway in Congress.

And while Hetch Hetchy became America’s first great modern conservation battle, President Woodrow Wilson eventually signed the O’Shaughnessy Dam’s construction into law via the Raker Act on Dec. 19, 1913. Ironically, the bill’s namesake sponsor, Congressman John E. Raker, had earlier attempted to introduce legislation to create the Redwood National and State Parks in Del Norte and Mendocino counties – a proposal that eventually came to pass in 1968.

After working his entire adult life to preserve Yosemite, even famously hiking to Glacier Point with President Theodore Roosevelt a decade earlier, Muir was devastated at the damming of Hetch Hetchy. In a letter to friend and scientist Vernon Kellogg, Muir wrote, “As to the loss of the Sierra Park Valley [Hetch Hetchy], it’s hard to bear. The destruction of the charming groves and gardens, the finest in all California, goes to my heart.”

Just over a year later, on Dec. 24, 1914, John Muir died.

Mike Marshall also spoke with us about the Restore Hetch Hetchy ballot measure, the need for San Francisco to at last undertake water recycling (most urban areas in California already have), the resistance of some city leaders and surprising allies Restore Hetchy Hetchy has made along the way, and the long-term use of the Tuolumne River, which will continue to serve as a water supply for the Central Valley and Bay Area whether or not the O’Shaughnessy Dam remains.

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Yosemite National Park photos © 2009 Tommy Hough, all rights reserved.
Linked graphic created by Bay Area News Group © 2012. Not intended for redistribution.