Monday, November 20, 2006

Hetch Hetchy

Helmut writes of the attempt to restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park by tearing down its controversial dam.

Hetch Hetchy, located deep within Yosemite National Park, brought the conservationist vs. preservationist ideas of American environmentalism to light for the first time. The growing city of San Francisco needed more water supplies and looked to the pure waters of Hetch Hetchy for relief. Today, there is no way such a proposal would pass. But at the time, Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt, and other leading conservationists believed that the environment needed to serve humanity. They all supported damming this valley. John Muir and his new Sierra Club spurred the opposition, though without success. Hetch Hetchy was completed in 1923. Over time, the Hetch Hetchy experience helped define the limits of what environmentalists could accept and became a key touchstone for the movement that halted the building of a dam in Dinosaur National Monument's Echo Park in the 1950s.

For a long time, environmentalists have wanted to tear down the dam and restore the valley to its pristine nature. San Francisco has other water sources these days so it is a reasonable possibility.

But I'm not sure how much I support tearing the dam down. First, it will take hundreds of years for the valley to recover to anything like it once was. Of course, this may not matter to many environmentalists and that's fine. But the idea that people will want to flock to the damless Hetch Hetchy Valley seems unlikely, at least once word gets out about what this tremendously damaged landscape looks like. Another concern is the cost. I'd rather have this money spent on more important environmental issues than tearing down one dam. I'd rather see the Snake River dams tore down to restore salmon runs for instance. And certainly the money would be better spent fighting climate change.

I think what concerns me more is that this effort reinforces the idea that national parks should be places without human history. I wish the dam had never been built. But it was and it should play a central role in the story of Yosemite, how early 20th century Americans viewed the environment, and the folly of trying to control and shape the landscape. Throughout the history of American national parks, narrative myths have developed of these places having no human history. Rather, they are seen as pristine pieces of nature unchanged by humans. This is almost always completely untrue. These myths began in the early 20th century when the Native Americans who routinely used Yellowstone and other national parks as hunting grounds were forced out by the Park Service, the US Army, and conservationists. Tourists did not want to see these places as having human uses, exception for their own aesthetic consumption. As these people (almost entirely upper-class whites) complained, the government stepped in and got rid of the Indians.

National parks have human histories. These are important histories to tell. The story of Hetch Hetchy can tell us more than most stories about historical interactions between humans and the environment. Regardless of what route the government chooses here, I hope this story continues to play a central part of Yosemite's oral and written history.