DAM! by John Warfield Simpson


Water, Power, Politics, and Preservation in Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite National Park
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A tale of two valleys—and two quite different visions of what to do with them.

The Yosemite Valley, in the Sierra Nevada of California, “once had a sister—the Hetch Hetchy Valley—just twenty-five miles to the north,” writes Simpson (Landscape Architecture/Ohio State Univ.; Visions of Paradise, 1999). The past tense is important to note, for in the 1920s, following half a century of argument and exploration, the Tuolumne River in Hetch Hetchy was dammed to provide water and power for San Francisco, 170 miles distant. The two major camps were personified by conservationist John Muir and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted on one hand and forestry expert Gifford Pinchot on the other; Muir and Olmsted pressed for protection of the entire Tuolumne watershed, whereas Pinchot held that the damage caused “by substituting a lake for the present swampy floor of the [Hetch Hetchy] valley . . . is altogether unimportant compared with the benefits to be derived from its use as a reservoir.” The political ascendancy of the railroading, ranching and development interests helped seal Hetch Hetchy’s fate, as did Pinchot’s own rise to head the U.S. Forest Service. The debate, Simpson observes, helped solidify stereotypes that persist today, including the characterization of conservationism as the brainchild of “the liberal, intellectual, and wealthy elite of the East Coast”; it also taught the conservationists to avoid grappling with local interests by taking environmental questions to a national audience, which would later serve Muir’s Sierra Club very well. Simpson does a good job of charting the complex political maneuvering that accompanied both the creation of Yosemite National Park and the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a matter that eventually came before the national legislature. He closes by endorsing a plan to remove the dam and restore the valley to its former state, asking, pointedly, “Would Congress listen to public opinion this time, or would economic interests and politics again dictate the outcome?”

Careful account of environmental controversy, a companion to Robert W. Righter’s recent Battle Over Hetch Hetchy.

Pub Date: July 12th, 2005
ISBN: 0-375-42231-5
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2005


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