Valley Of The Dam

More than 80 years after a hydroelectric dam was built in Yosemite National Park, author John Warfield Simpson argues for its removal.

August 07, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun Staff



By John Warfield Simpson. Pantheon. 384 pages.

Yosemite National Park is a beautiful land of betrayal. The name of the valley, with its towering waterfalls in California's Sierra Nevada mountains, was taken from the Yosemite Indians, who were massacred and driven from their sacred home by the U.S. Army in 1851.

Fifteen years later, Congress pledged to preserve Yosemite as the world's first national park. But budget cuts crippled efforts to manage the wilderness as a public recreation area, and it was quickly overrun by poachers, vandals, timber companies and profiteers who opened saloons and hotels inside the park.

The federal government promised to prevent any harm to Yosemite's meadows, forests and cliffs. But in 1923 it broke its word by allowing the city of San Francisco to flood a 1,900-acre section of the park and raise a 30-story-tall hydroelectric dam and eight-mile-long municipal reservoir.

The drowning of the park's Hetch Hetchy Valley under 117 billion gallons of water is the subject of John Warfield Simpson's new book, Dam!

A professor of natural resources at Ohio State University, Simpson says the battle over the dam was our nation's first public environmental debate and shows its catalyzing role in the formation of the movement to save the American wilderness.

The argument over the dam pitted preservationists, led by John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, against conservationists, such as Gifford Pinchot, the father of the U.S. Forest Service. The philosophical clash still echoes today

Pinchot, a Yale-educated easterner whose family earned immense wealth in the timber industry, argued that public lands were not meant for birds and animals, but for the well-managed extraction of trees, minerals and water.

Muir, the self-made son of a Wisconsin farmer who became an influential naturalist, preached that unique wilderness areas like Yosemite had spiritual value that transcended economics.

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul," Muir wrote.

Muir's eloquent appeals won popular support among newspaper editorialists and letter writers across the country. But those voices did not sway the political powerbrokers in Congress, who lined up in support of San Francisco's more pragmatic need for a dam that would supply cheap water and electricity.

President Woodrow Wilson signed the law allowing the flooding of the Hetch Hetchy Valley on Dec. 19, 1913, and Muir died of pneumonia a few weeks later, despondent over the loss of what he regarded as one of nature's greatest treasures.

Dam! succeeds when it illuminates the characters of Muir and Pinchot and articulates why their clashing world views remain so important today. But vast stretches of the work are too narrowly focused on the eye-glazing minutia of San Francisco's local politics to be an enjoyable read for people not from that city.

More troubling, Simpson's views on the environment are a caricature of the romanticism that has left the movement on the fringes of the American political system. In the end, he concludes that -- after making an expensive error in building the dam -- the government should spend as much as another $2 billion to tear it down and restore the valley to its natural state.

But he fails to provide any evidence of continuing environmental harm caused by the dam, which has stood for 80 years and generates enough electricity to light 325,000 households a year. Does the dam harm fish, wildlife, public health? Simpson doesn't explain. But he knows he doesn't like the look of a man-made lake in a national park.

"Tear down this damn dam damnation and restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley," Simpson thunders. "Heal this self-inflicted wound in Yosemite National Park and our national heart and soul. We can do it. We have the technology. We have the money."

Not all readers would agree that $2 billion would be better spent on this "damn dam" than, for example, improving public education. Or, in the environmental arena, halting escalating damage caused by raw sewage that continues to flow into the Chesapeake Bay.

Simpson is probably right that the Hetch Hetchy dam should never have been built. But now that it supplies power and water to much of the Silicon Valley, pulling the plug would cause more damage than just letting it stand as a monument to our nation's utilitarian soul.

Tom Pelton covers the environment for The Sun.

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