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Hetch Hetchy and a Century of Environmentalism

Scb_viii_plate_lv_gleasonArchival photo of the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Photo by Herbert Gleason, courtesy Restore Hetch Hetchy. 

Yosemite. Yellowstone. The Grand Canyon. The Great Smoky Mountains, and so many more.

It's hard to imagine the United States of America without our national parks.  But in the late 19th century, preserving public land in its natural state was a new and provocative idea. It was also too late for many European countries, whose lands had already been fully developed.

It all started when President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation to preserve Yosemite Valley in faraway California for "public use, resort and recreation ... inalienable for all time." Shortly afterward, Yellowstone National Park was created -- our nation's, and the world's, first wilderness park.  Yosemite, Sequoia, Mesa Verde, and Mount Rainier came soon after.

But 100 years ago, we took a step backward. San Francisco, in the wake of the 1906 earthquake and fire that devastated the city, campaigned to build a dam in Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley, one of two iconic glacier carved valleys in the park.  More than 200 newspapers nationwide rose in opposition to the idea that a single municipality could take over land that had been "preserved in perpetuity" for all Americans. After extensive deliberation, however, the Raker Act was passed by Congress, allowing the dam to be built. It was signed by President Woodrow Wilson on December 19, 1913.

In 1916, Congress, reflecting on the unprecedented groundswell of public opinion that had occurred during the debate over the Raker Act, passed the National Park Service Act -- a law intended to prevent, in large part, any more such intrusions. Subsequent proposals to build dams in Yellowstone in the 1920s and the Grand Canyon in the 1950s were defeated. And while threats to and controversies within our national parks continue, no  destruction approaching the scale of putting a dam in Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley has been allowed in the last 100 years.

During the last century, the conservation movement has evolved and grown enormously –- fighting ever larger battles to protect the natural world and create a sustainable economy. Today, conflicts over public land extend far beyond our national park systemand are often fought over urban parks as well as wilderness areas.  

In the 1960s, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring alerted us to the fact that better living through chemistry was very often not so. Shortly thereafter, environmentalists joined forces to effect a nationwide ban on DDT.

In the 1969, a horrified nation watched Ohio's Cuyahoga River catch fire, and political pressure persuaded President Richard Nixon to sign the Clean Water Act. Nixon also signed the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Today, much of the conservation movement is consumed with local, national, and international efforts to stop Earth's atmosphere from warming due to the combustion of fossil fuels. The Sierra Club has had significant victories in this area over the last few years, particularly fighting against coal-fired power stations.

Conservation is now integrated with virtually every aspect of our lives. We recycle, and conserve energy and water. We subsidize public transportation and dedicate highway lanes to carpools. We regulate forestry and commercial fishing so that the world our grandchildren will inherit will look like the one we know now -- or perhaps even a bit better.

Even as the conservation movement has become so many different things, our national parks are still the envy of the world.  Visit them and you will find not only a plethora of your own countrymen, but citizens from countries around the world, many of which did not have the foresight to preserve some of their own very special places.

The centennial of the Raker Act is bittersweet.  It did teach us a valuable lesson about our national parks that we have learned well. And the groundswell of public opinion in 1913 that opposed building a dam in Yosemite has helped to precipitate much of the activism that we pursue today.

Still, Hetch Hetchy remains the greatest blemish in our national parks.  100 years ago, this nation’s lawmakers made a grave environmental mistake.  But it can be reversed.  Today, Restore Hetch Hetchy is resolved to undo that mistake, and we invite all our fellow citizens to join us in making Yosemite National Park whole again.

-- Roger Williams is on the Executive Committee of the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter and is a leader in local and national wilderness outings. He is also board chairman of  Restore Hetch Hetchy, whose mission is to return the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park to its natural splendor while continuing to meet the water and power needs of all communities that depend on the Tuolumne River.  For more information, visit www.hetchhetchy.org


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