Hetch Hetchy was the first major battle of the environmental movement. It pitted a powerful city against a dedicated group of conservationists. It pitted Gifford Pinchot, America’s first forester, against John Muir, America’s legendary conservationist.
This fight set the stage for future battles between those who believed natural resources were to be used for the greatest good versus those who believed natural resources were to be preserved for the greatest enjoyment.
Hetch Hetchy is the incredible story of America’s most controversial dam and the birth of the environmental movement. It is part of our More than Just Parks Environmental Heroes series.
Hetch Hetchy: A Battle of Use vs Preservation
The battle over Hetch Hetchy was a fight to determine whether a beautiful valley would remain in its natural state or service the growing city of San Francisco’s water needs. The larger issues at stake would frame environmental debates for years to come.
The fundamental issue involved two concepts. The first is utilitarian conservation. Should natural resources be used to serve the greatest good for the greatest number?
A Question of Preservation
The second concept is preservation. Should nature be left alone so that flora and fauna flourish while people enjoy its primal wonders?
Unintended Consequences of Hetch Hetchy
There is a third concept, too, though it was little understood at the time. It involved the unintended consequences of efforts to shape the environment to meet human needs.
At the time, neither side understood the long-range consequences of human actions to “manage” the environment.
How Dams Damage Rivers
There are four fundamental ways in which dams damage rivers. First, they block rivers which prevents fish from migrating. This limits their ability to access spawning habitat, seek out food resources, and escape predation.
Second, dams slow rivers. This can be very disorienting to fish and disrupt their migrations as they depend on steady streams and flows to guide them.
Some hydro-power dams withhold and then release water to generate power for peak demand periods, which is particularly disruptive to migrating fish.
Third, dams alter natural habitats and change the ways in which rivers function. Gravel, logs, and other important food and habitat features can become trapped. They also remove water needed for healthy in-stream ecosystems.
Fourth, dams alter water quality. Slow-moving reservoirs heat up, resulting in abnormal temperature fluctuations which can affect sensitive species. This can lead to algal blooms and decreased oxygen levels. (Source: American Rivers, How Dams Damage Rivers)
How Is The Environment Being Impacted
When changes are made there are unintended consequences. As we learned from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, humankind can damage the environment while attempting to control it. This is why environmental impact statements, which were not required prior to 1969, are so important today.
A Local Legend Emerges
The first people, outside of Native Americans, to see the Hetch Hetchy Valley were Joseph, Nate and William Screech in 1850. According to a local legend, Nate spotted a valley to the east that was too far to visit.
On returning home, he asked an Indian chief the name of the valley. The chief replied, “There is no valley. It is only a cut in the hills through which the Tuolumne River runs, but if you think there might be a valley keep looking and if you find such a place I will give it to you.”
Nate went on looking for the valley. He discovered it a few of years later. There, he met the same Indian chief and his wives. The chief began packing up and, when Nate asked him why, he replied, “The valley is yours now.”
The Hetch Hetchy Valley
In the autumn of 1871, John Muir visited Hetch Hetchy for the first time. He wrote, “…I have always called it the Tuolumne Yosemite, for it is a wonderfully exact counterpart of the great Yosemite, not only in its crystal river and sublime rocks and waterfalls, but in the gardens, groves, and meadows of its flowery park-like floor.
The walls of both are of gray granite, rise abruptly out of the flowery grass and groves are sculptured in the same style, and in both every rock is a glacial monument.”
(Source: Journal of Sierra Nevada History & Biography, Hetch-Hetchy, Natural History Before The Dam, Joe Medeiros)
RELATED: 10+ AMAZING John Muir Facts
Albert Bierstadt & Hetch Hetchy
Albert Bierstadt was known for his sweeping landscapes of the American West. Like Muir, he was totally transfixed by the Hetch Hetchy Valley. He produced at least four oil paintings of the valley one of which is prominently displayed in Mount Holyoke College’s art museum.
Bierstadt’s paintings and Muir’s writings began to publicize the beauty of the Hetch Hetchy Valley. As a consequence, visitors came to experience it for themselves.
California And The Search For Water
The history of California’s growth is inextricably linked to the search for water. The bustling metropolis of Los Angeles could not have become the city it did without the water which flowed from the Owens Valley hundreds of miles away.
California needed secure, reliable access to drinking water for their burgeoning populations. Not to be outdone by Los Angeles, San Francisco had a greater feat in mind: dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park and pipe the water into San Francisco.
James Phelan & Hetch Hetchy
San Francisco Mayor James Phelan led the fight to build a dam at Hetch Hetchy. As John Clayton writes, “At the height of Progressivism, Phelan and other good-government types believed that the city should administer its own utilities.
To do so, it would either have to buy out the private monopoly at an exorbitant price or outmaneuver or outbid Spring Valley for a potential new reservoir.“
(Source: Natural Rivals: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and the Creation of America’s Public Lands, John Clayton)
A Fight Over Public Power
The battle for the Hetch Hetchy Valley’s future was not simply preservation versus conservation. Had it been, the Sierra Club’s members would have presented a united front in opposition to its development.
Instead, it was a more complicated battle which pitted public interests against private interests.
The privately owned Spring Valley Water Company had required its customers to pay exorbitant rates for years. Through the manipulation of water, the company also had the power to determine which real estate became valuable and which languished.
Private vs Public Interest
The deciding factor was whether or not the land in question had access to water. Progressive political leaders, of whom Mayor Phelan was one, believed it was time to take this power away from the private interests and turn it over to the people.
The Interior Department Waffles on Hetch Hetchy
Secretary of the Interior, Ethan Allen Hitchcock, refused to give San Francisco a permit to build the dam. As the Hetch Hetchy Valley was part of Yosemite National Park, Hitchcock preferred to protect the park’s natural wonders.
By 1908, a different Interior Secretary, James R. Garfield, sided with the utilitarian conservationists and issued a permit for the Hetch Hetchy project.
Garfield was responding to critics who believed that the federal government’s primary responsibility was to use the nation’s public resources for development in the service for the greatest number of people.
Richard Ballinger & Hetch Hetchy
What one Secretary of the Interior giveth, another taketh away. William Howard Taft became president in 1909. Richard Ballinger was appointed his Interior Secretary.
Garfield had granted San Francisco’s request, but Ballinger ordered the city to show cause as to why Hetch Hetchy should not be deleted from their grant.
Once again, the political pendulum had swung. This time it was in favor those who wanted to preserve the valley for generations yet to come.
The Hetch Hetchy Controversy
John Muir knew that without public support, the Hetch Hetchy Valley would be lost. In an effort to build this support, he published his book The Yosemite in 1912.
Muir famously said, “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 . . .” For John Muir, it was about preserving a natural wonder which could be enjoyed by generations to come.
The Sanctity of the National Parks
Muir and other defenders of Hetch Hetchy believe the fight revolved around two central issues. First, the beauty of the valley which they felt should not be sacrificed to build a dam. Second, the sanctity of the national parks which they believed should not be violated.
Harriet Monroe & Hetch Hetchy
Next to John Muir, the most vocal defender of the Hetch Hetchy Valley was Harriet Monroe. Monroe was a Chicago poet who joined Muir and others on their 1908 and 1909 outings to the valley. Her poetic descriptions of Hetch hetchy won her the attention of powerful members of Congress.
Monroe went on to lobby members of Congress as the battle moved to Washington D.C. She was a tireless advocate who believed that people needed to be educated in order to do what was best for everyone involved. Like Muir, she felt the beauty of the valley was a national treasure which ought to be preserved.
Gifford Pinchot Takes a Side On Hetch Hetchy
While John Muir led the fight against building the dam, the opposition was supported by Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot was “America’s Forester.” He served as the first head of the United States Forest Service. Pinchot was recognized as a leader of the conservation movement.
He was a firm believer in utilitarian conservation. The question Pinchot always asked was, “What is the greatest good for the greatest number?”
He was famously quoted as saying, “Where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question shall always be answered from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.”
The Greatest Good For The Greatest Number
In his congressional testimony, Pinchot argued in favor of building the dam. He said, “So we come now face to face with the perfectly clean question of what is the best use to which this water that flows out of the Sierras can be put. As we all know, there is no use of water that is higher than the domestic use.”
He went on to say, “We come straight to the question of whether the advantage of leaving this valley in a state of nature is greater than the advantage of using it for the benefit of the city of San Francisco.”
Pinchot argued that applying the principle of the “greatest good for the greatest number,” meant the benefits accrued to the people of San Francisco from having the dam far outweighed leaving the valley in its current state.
A Divided Opposition on Hetch Hetchy
An advantage which Phelan, Pinchot and other supporters of the dam project enjoyed was a divided opposition.
Within the ranks of the Sierra Club, there was a split between those San Francisco members who favored the dam’s municipal use versus those who believed this pristine area should not be tampered with under any circumstances.
The Freeman Report
While opponents of the dam were hard pressed for financial support, the city of San Francisco’s campaign was well financed.
Utilizing its superior resources, the city produced a detailed report which made a compelling case that, far from damaging the beauty of Yosemite, the dam would actually enhance it.
The report cited other dam projects in making the argument that this project would increase tourism.
The Freeman Report artfully depicted reservoirs in Norway, the United Kingdom and the eastern United States showing how nature and public utility worked together to improve their surroundings and provide long-term benefits for everyone.
Woodrow Wilson Appoints Franklin Lane
Once again, the political pendulum would swing. This time, in favor of those who wanted to build the dam. Franklin Lane served as the attorney for the city of San Francisco in 1903.
He had journeyed to Washington to lobby the federal government on behalf of the project. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson appointed Lane his Secretary of the Interior.
Enter Horace Albright
Horace Albright, the second director of the National Park Service, wrote that “Franklin Lane’s appointment to the cabinet was made specifically for the purpose of pushing this [Hetch Hetchy project], the so-called Raker-Pittman Bill.” (Source: The Battle Over Hetch Hetchy, Robert W. Righter)
Albright, along with Stephen Mather, became instrumental players in the creation of a national park system three years after Congress decided the issue of Hetch Hetchy.
The Raker Bill & Hetch Hetchy
Congress would decide the fate of the Hetchy Hetchy Valley. California Rep. John E. Raker submitted a bill to Congress granting the city of San Francisco the right to dam the Hetchy Hetchy Valley as a reservoir and also provide the city the right of municipalized electricity as well.
The San Francisco Bulletin printed a Dec. 1, 1913, story calling the bill’s opponents “a crowd of
nature lovers and fakers, who are waging a sentimental campaign to preserve the Hetch Hetchy Valley as a public playground, a purpose for which it has never been used.”
On December 19, 1913, Congress passed and President Wilson signed the Raker Act which permitted the building of the O’Shaughnessy Dam and the flooding of the Hetch Hethcy Valley in Yosemite National Park.
The Legacy Of Hetch Hetchy
Environmentalists lost what was the opening battle in a fight to preserve America’s natural wonders. Hetch Hetchy ushered in a new era for the national parks.
It forced elected representatives to consider what a national park designation truly meant and whether or not the land within these parks deserved protection.
The Organic Act
Public disapproval nationwide with the Raker Act helped to bring about the creation of the National Park Service. Within three years, Congress had passed the Organic Act, formally defining the parks and creating a new federal agency, the National Park Service, with a mission:
“…to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
The grassroots organization of environmental activism, established by John Muir and his supporters, became a model for future environmentalists.
Subsequent proposals for development in our national parks have been defeated by citizen activists inspired by calls to remember Hetch Hetchy.
Restore Hetch Hetchy?
In 1987, President Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, Donald Hodel, proposed that Hetch Hetchy be restored. He was opposed by then Mayor Diane Feinstein who argued that the dam was San Franciscans birthright.
In the 21st century, Ken Brower, son of the renown environmentalist David Brower, wrote a fascinating account of the failed campaign to save Hetch Hetchy and the modern effort to “Reverse an American Mistake,” complete with speculation about how the rebirth of a wild valley might evolve.
And today there is even an organization, Restore Hetch Hetchy, which is committed to doing just that.
Visit Hetch Hetchy
Hetch Hetchy Valley is a treasure worth visiting. Located at 3,900 feet, it boasts one of the longest hiking seasons in the park. It’s a a wonderful place to see spring waterfalls and wildflower displays.
High temperatures prevail in summer months, but it’s a small price to pay for the reward of vast wilderness filled with stunning peaks, hidden canyons, and remote lakes.
To Learn More About Hetch Hetchy
- Clayton, John. Natural Rivals: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and the Creation of America’s Public Lands, Pegasus Books, 2019.
- Miller, Char. Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism, Island Press, 2001.
- Righter, Robert W. The Battle Over Hetch Hetchy: America’s Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism, Oxford University Press, 2005.
- Wolfe, Linnie Marsh. Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1945.
- Worster, Donald. A Passion of Nature: The Life for John Muir, Oxford University Press, 2008.