Water, Power, Politics, and Preservation
in Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite National Park
By John Warfield Simpson
Pantheon; 356pp; $28.50
The Good A worthwhile rendering of the first great debate over a U.S. environmental treasure.
The Bad "Dam!" suffers from an academic writing style and a failure to develop colorful characters.
The Bottom Line With debate over the environment still hot, this is a reminder of the first cause celebre.
Every day during the summer tourist season, an estimated 7,000 vehicles bring some 25,000 people to Yosemite National Park. The stark cliffs, great waterfalls, panoramic views from canyon rims, and the grandeur of El Capitan rank among the natural highlights of the world. Yosemite's purple-mountain majesty evokes the same kind of awe in tourists today that it did a century ago from an earlier visitor, President Theodore Roosevelt. "This is bully," he declared on his first day in the park. Later, camped on the southern edge of Bridalveil meadow, he was moved to declare: "This has been the grandest day of my life."
A lot has happened in the 103 years since TR was guided around Yosemite by John Muir, the famous author and pioneering preservationist -- and the invasion of international tour buses and camera-toting city slickers is just the beginning of it. As John Warfield Simpson points out in Dam! Water, Power, Politics, and Preservation in Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite National Park, the Yosemite Valley once had a sister called the Hetch Hetchy Valley 25 miles to the north. Smaller and often mosquito-infested, the Hetch Hetchy Valley still was an awesome sight with its gray granite walls, cascading waterfalls, and narrow valley floor. Muir described Hetch Hetchy as "a grand landscape garden, one of nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples.... No holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man."
If things had turned out a little differently, thousands of vacationers would probably be traipsing through the Hetch Hetchy Valley on this summer day. But they can't. The reason: The valley no longer exists. Despite being part of the famous national park, it was dammed up and buried beneath several hundred feet of water to provide drinking water to San Francisco. In his book, Simpson, a professor of landscape architecture and natural resources at Ohio State University, takes a dry but pointed look at the debate that led to the destruction of the valley. He also describes the corruption, moral and political, that drove California politicians and tycoons to ignore public opinion, congressional mandates, and even a Supreme Court decision as they sought to turn Hetch Hetchy into a source of water, electricity, and profits.
Simpson has a clear point of view and a policy agenda: He thinks it was a terrible idea to flood the valley and dreams of dismantling the dam. Still, it's possible to say objectively that the story is one of the hugely underplayed political scandals of the 20th century -- and cost the U.S. a wilderness treasure.
Despite Simpson's obvious bias, he gives readers both sides of the debate over damming Hetch Hetchy. This was the dawn of the environmental movement, and activists were divided between the conservationists, led by Gifford Pinchot, the chief forester of the U.S., and the preservationists, led by Muir and his friends at the Sierra Club. Pinchot believed, as did TR, that the public interest of the nation required the "highest possible beneficial use" of natural resources for the maximum number of Americans, a justification for logging, mineral exploration, tourism, and economic development. The preservationists believed that certain natural wonders were so vital to the nation's soul that they should be exempt from cost-benefit analyses and political intrigue.
In the end, however, the future of Hetch Hetchy wasn't decided on the basis of either view. Power politics carried the day, Simpson argues -- intending the double meaning. President Woodrow Wilson signed Hetch Hetchy Valley's death warrant in 1913, though the first water didn't flow to the Bay Area until 1934. "Politics and economics dictated the outcome more than the philosophical and environmental issues," the author writes.
One drawback to Dam! is that it is not more compelling, given its dramatic subject matter and colorful cast of characters. Simpson sometimes reverts to an academic style, when a topic like this demands rich character development and colorful exposition on the scenery.
Still, Dam! will make you ponder the current state of the environmental movement, particularly the debate over energy drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Just as politicians a century ago talked about the economic benefits of providing a steady supply of water to San Francisco, politicians today talk about creating a reliable supply of oil to free the U.S. from dependence on foreign sources. Progress, the argument still goes, will mar only a small and insignificant part of a national treasure.
So the debates sparked by the battle over Hetch Hetchy remain, even as environmentalists expend their political capital on modern-day issues ranging from suburban sprawl to the caribou of the Alaskan tundra. Thanks to Simpson, we can be reminded of what started it all.
By Richard S. Dunham