Pinchot, Muir, and the Conservation Movement Meet at Hetch Hetchy
Time Period: 1890s to 1910s
In This Corner: Social reformers, progressives, engineers
In the Other Corner: Industrial interests, big business, government officials
Other Interested Parties: Voting public
General Environmental Issue(s): Conservation, resource management
The distinction between two well-intentioned approaches to land use, conservation and preservation, were destined for conflict in the early 1900s. With well-known spokespeople and legions of followers, each viewpoint could call itself part of an emerging environmental consciousness. Despite their commonalities, however, solutions to a single issue could appear vastly different to preservationists and to conservationists. This debate first openly clashed in the early 1910s over a river valley known as Hetch Hetchy.
No simple river valley in the middle of nowhere, Hetch Hetchy was near enough to San Francisco that, after the fire in the early 1900s, the valley might be considered as a possible supplier of water in case of another fire. To do so, however, the valley would need to be transformed into a reservoir, flooded by damming the Tuolumne River, which ran through it. To conservationists, this plan represented a sensible use of natural resources. To preservationists, however, the most important information about Hetch Hetchy was that the valley fell within the borders of Yosemite National Park in northern California. Yellowstone and Yosemite had been designated the nation's first national parks in the 1870s. Still, thirty years later and with other parks in existence, no one had yet specifically determined what that designation actually constituted.
Because of the mixed motives and lack of organization in the creation of early parks, it was inevitable that interested parties would soon clash over one site. The parks were vulnerable to competing interests, including industry and development. More surprising, however, early conservationists often squared off against preservationists on what the term “national park” should mean. Utilitarian conservationists favoring regulated use rather than strict preservation of natural resources often advocated the construction of dams by public authorities for water supply, power, and irrigation purposes.
Although the difference between preservation and conservation may not have been clear to Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century, popular culture and the writings of “muckraking” journalists clearly reflected a time of changing sensibilities. When the mayor Page 263 | Top of Articleof San Francisco moved forward the plan to flood Hetch Hetchy, the stage was set for one of the nation's first full-blown environmental battles. Preservationists, rallied by popular magazine articles by naturalist John Muir, boisterously refused to compromise the authenticity of a National Park's natural environment.
Reviving romantic notions and even transcendental philosophies, Muir used this pulpit to urge that “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” He called those wanting to develop the site “temple destroyers.” He went on to say the following:
... Damming and submerging it 175 feet deep would enhance its beauty by forming a crystal-clear lake. Landscape gardens, places of recreation and worship, are never made beautiful by destroying and burying them. The beautiful sham lake, forsooth, should be only an eyesore, a dismal blot on the landscape, like many others to be seen in the Sierra. For, instead of keeping it at the same level all the year, allowing Nature centuries of time to make new shores, it would, of course, be full only a month or two in the spring, when the snow is melting fast; then it would be gradually drained, exposing the slimy sides of the basin and shallower parts of the bottom, with the gathered drift and waste, death and decay of the upper basins, caught here instead of being swept on to decent natural burial along the banks of the river or in the sea. Thus the Hetch Hetchy dam-lake would be only a rough imitation of a natural lake for a few of the spring months, an open sepulcher for the others.
Hetch Hetchy water is the purest of all to be found in the Sierra, unpolluted, and forever unpollutable. On the contrary, excepting that of the Merced below Yosemite, it is less pure than that of most of the other Sierra streams, because of the sewerage of camp grounds draining into it, especially of the Big Tuolumne Meadows camp ground, occupied by hundreds of tourists and mountaineers, with their animals, for months every summer, soon to be followed by thousands from all the world.
These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.
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. (Muir, Travels in Alaska)
In response, Pinchot defined the conservationist philosophy by claiming that such a reservoir represented the “greatest good for the greatest number” of people and therefore should be the nation's priority. In his testimony to Congress, Pinchot said the following:
... we come now face to face with the perfectly clear 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. Then, if there is, as the engineers tell us, no other source of supply that is anything like so reasonably available as this Page 264 | Top of Articleone; if this is the best, and, within reasonable limits of cost, the only means of supplying San Francisco with water, 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.
Now, the fundamental principle of the whole conservation policy is that of use, to take every part of the land and its resources and put it to that use in which it will best serve the most people, and I think there can be no question at all but that in this case we have an instance in which all weighty considerations demand the passage of the bill.
... I think that the men who assert that it is better to leave a piece of natural scenery in its natural condition have rather the better of the argument, and I believe if we had nothing else to consider than the delight of the few men and women who would yearly go into the Hetch Hetchy Valley, then it should be left in its natural condition. But the considerations on the other side of the question to my mind are simply overwhelming, and so much so that I have never been able to see that there was any reasonable argument against the use of this water supply by the city of San Francisco. (Nash)
Although preservationists had great passion in this instance, the logic of Pinchot's arguments was undeniable to the American public. The dam and reservoir would be approved in 1913, but the battle had fueled the emergence of the modern environmental movement (Fox 1981, 147–49). Considered a disaster by many environmentalists, this episode forced preservationists to denote more specifically what it meant and should mean to call a place a “national park.”
Sources and Further Reading: Fox, The American Conservation Movement; Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency; Miller, Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism; Muir, Travels in Alaska; Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind; Pinchot, Breaking New Ground; Reiger, American Sportsmen and the Origins of Conservation; Steinberg, Down to Earth.