The Embattled Wilderness
NPS Arrowhead logo

Chapter Six:
Losing Ground

The uncertainties and inconsistencies of its management aside, Yosemite at the turn of the century was on the verge of unprecedented change. The establishment of the national park a decade earlier had not been greeted with universal acclaim. To be sure, hardly had the greater park been approved when its detractors went on record in favor of significant reductions in its total land area. Predictably, the majority of the opposition came from speculators and developers, especially logging, mining, and real estate interests. As early as 1891 they called for legislation to remove from the park practically all of its sugar pine forests along the boundary to the west, as well as mining and grazing districts to the southeast and southwest. [1] Throughout the 1890s agitation for these adjustments grew in intensity until, in 1905, Congress approved the elimination of 542 square miles of territory from the original park boundary.

From a scenic standpoint the reductions appeared to be inconsequential; by and large the lands removed from the park were at the lower elevations and were well outside its monumental core. In partial compensation for some of the territory eliminated, Congress also extended the boundary northward to encompass an additional 113 square miles of mountainous terrain. The realignment had the most effect on Yosemite's plants and animals. Much of the territory eliminated was important wildlife habitat, lowlands and river valleys that were better suited for breeding and winter refuge. Similarly, the forests lost to the park contained many of its oldest and finest trees. Thus although the national park's grandest scenery had been spared, its effectiveness as a biological preserve had been seriously jeopardized.

Nor had Congress concluded its realignment of the park. As early as 1901 the city of San Francisco had petitioned the federal government for permission to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley for a municipal water-supply reservoir. In the opinion of preservationists, Hetch Hetchy was nothing less than Yosemite Valley's counterpart. Still, in December 1913 Congress and the president approved San Francisco's request. For the first time the park suffered a significant scenic as well as biological loss. Yosemite at the turn of the century had had great potential for both scenic and biological conservation. Suddenly, in little more than a decade, its future in each category had been compromised by a series of sharp reversals. Preservationists could only conclude the obvious: Yosemite National Park would never be quite the same again.

"The private landed interests within the boundaries of the park are probably much greater than the Congress knew of when so much area was included within its limits." So Captain A. E. Wood, writing to the secretary of the interior in his first annual report as acting superintendent of Yosemite National Park, set the theme of the boundary controversy for the next fifteen years. Legislation for land withdrawals soon became almost a perennial item on Capitol Hill. H.R. 7872, for example, introduced to Congress in 1894, authorized the secretary of the interior, with the approval of the president, to make any desirable adjustments without further congressional review. "The law establishing this park was passed in 1890, on suspension day," the House Report favoring the bill noted, "without having been previously introduced and considered in committee; hence no opportunity was given the people affected by it to be heard in any effort to modify its boundaries." The result was inclusion within the park of "about 65,000 acres of patented lands and also in the neighborhood of 300 mining claims." And just one of those claims, it had been reported, had already produced "over $3,000,000 in gold." [2]

In Captain Wood's opinion, the problem would be solved if Congress established "natural boundaries" for Yosemite National Park. Mining districts could be removed from the park while still protecting the best timber "and all of the natural wonders, excluding none whatever." The revised park would be smaller but also truer to its original intent. "It excludes no timber," he reiterated, anticipating that his plan might be misinterpreted as an attack on the integrity of the park, especially its watersheds. The point was that his proposal recognized "the only portion of country that furnishes a reason for a national park." [3]

Paradoxically, his recommendation made sense. Hardly had he arrived in Yosemite National Park when his troopers faced the problem of distinguishing between government and private lands. The elimination of all land and mining claims would greatly facilitate a unified management of the preserve. Meanwhile, the issue further testified to Yosemite's ironic origins. Opponents of the national park in Congress had been caught off guard by the reference to its territory as "reserved forest lands." It remained for Secretary of the Interior John W. Noble, whose department Congress entrusted with managing the preserve, to erase the subterfuge by designating all of Yosemite's 1,512 square miles as in fact a national park. [4]

Like Captain Wood, opponents of the national park still argued that its integrity could best be maintained by eliminating those lands requiring the most surveillance. The inconsistency of that proposal was its effect on the resource. If the federal government yielded to exploitation every time something of value was found within the park, it followed that Yosemite would ultimately protect only what no one else wanted. John Muir himself, calling in 1890 for the establishment of a park encompassing the Tuolumne River and Merced River watersheds, used precisely that line of reasoning to plead his point of view. Granted, the watersheds lay "in a compact mass of mountains that are glorious scenery," he wrote. Nevertheless, none of the area was "valuable for any other use than the use of beauty." No other interests would suffer by "this extension of the boundary." [5] Yosemite's opponents now held Muir to his word. The park in fact included timber, mineral, and settlement claims, lands whose elimination would still leave the high country basically intact. Accordingly, resource interests saw no justification for the park to extend appreciably beyond its mountainous heart.

In each of his three reports as acting superintendent, Captain Wood turned to that recommendation as his own administrative theme. In 1892, for example, he surveyed mining claims located in the southwest, southeast, and Mount Gibbs portions of the park, remarking afterward that their isolation alone justified their prompt elimination. "There are no natural curiosities of a destructive character in any of them," he maintained, returning to a basic frontier argument that parks should protect superlative scenery only. "There is nothing in these mining sections that would attract the tourist or wonder-seeker." Rather, each district was located "at an extreme corner of the park," accessible only "by the most fatiguing climbing." Certainly it would be "against public policy" for the government to revoke title to these claims just to "lock them up" in areas of the park that few people would ever get to see. In 1893 he repeated that recommendation with even greater decisiveness. "These mines can not eternally be kept locked up in this park, nor is it good public policy to have them in the park." A national park, he firmly concluded, "should contain nothing but natural curiosities for the preservation of which alone the park was created." [6]

So too Wood's successor, Captain G.H.G. Gale, recommended the exclusion of the mining districts, which he regarded as "useless for park purposes." Yet in Gale's report were the rudiments of an awareness that parks might in fact serve other important roles. "Quail are decidedly on the increase," he remarked, for instance. Also grouse could "be heard drumming in the woods," and deer signs were "frequent." Bears, panthers, and coyotes were also common "in certain portions of the park and are quite useful coadjutors in maneuvering against the trespassing sheep herder." Indeed, park animals could be "very bold, a pair of panthers having their den within a very short distance from my camp and making their presence known in various ways." [7]

Gradually, Yosemite's potential as a wildlife preserve commanded greater attention in the superintendents' annual reports. In 1896, for example, Lieutenant Colonel S.B.M. Young reported evidence that trappers and market hunters had taken a great deal of game during the winter and spring months. Likewise, tourists had been destroying the nests of breeding birds. "I have refused permits to carry any firearms inside the park boundaries," he wrote, indicating his major effort to stem the wildlife slaughter. Regrettably, firearms were still "occasionally smuggled into the park by campers." In addition, further evidence had been found pointing to "the destruction of fish in spawning beds by shooting and the use of explosives." [8]

Concern about the future of wildlife in part formed the basis of Young's recommendation that absolutely no territory should be taken from the park. Instead he urged the government to acquire title "to all lands within the park boundaries." In this manner he broke completely with his predecessor, Captain A. E. Wood, who had steadfastly maintained that only the elimination of the mining districts would serve the public interest. Young agreed that private lands in the park were very difficult to patrol. "So long as settlers own lands in the park and live thereon trespass can not be entirely prevented," he admitted. And yet, preservation would never be served by reducing the area of the park. Indeed, he concluded, "As John Muir so aptly remarks in the Sierra Club Bulletin, No. 7: 'The smallest reserve, and the first ever heard of, was in the Garden of Eden, and though its boundaries were drawn by the Lord, and embraced only one tree, yet the rules were violated by the only two settlers that were permitted on suffrage to live in it'." [9]

In retrospect, the cavalry was immersed in the natural resources debate gradually taking shape across the nation at large. Young's report indicated that he both read conservation literature and supported strict principles of scenic preservation. In other words, Yosemite's boundary question, like burning, was an important catalyst for disagreement and debate. Here again, the cavalry had become a mirror of more widespread ambivalence, further proof that a working definition of national parks had yet to be resolved.

Quite by accident, Yosemite National Park at the turn of the century still had much potential as a wildlife preserve. Simply, the park was large enough to provide some semblance of refuge for resident species of animals and birds. It followed that no role of the park, either intended or otherwise, was in greater jeopardy of impairment if mounting pressures for territorial eliminations were successful. In Captain E. F. Willcox, acting superintendent in 1899, wildlife conservation found another of its first and most outspoken champions. "As the game is a source of great pleasure to tourists, it can not be too carefully preserved," he remarked to the secretary of the interior in his annual report. Yosemite was indeed "a grand and beautiful country, abounding in interesting flora and fauna." That too was reason for the park to be "properly surveyed" and maintained, and for "monumental" violation penalties to be established and enforced. [10]

In a similar vein, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Garrard, acting superintendent, called in 1903 for the "protection and preservation of the game in the forest reserves bordering on the national parks and reservations." In other words, he proposed broadening protection efforts to recognize the movements of park wildlife from one season to the next. In addition to safeguarding animals from poaching within the park, the problem was how to protect wildlife that had been forced outside Yosemite proper by the mountainous terrain. "The animals leave the higher altitudes as soon as snow comes," he noted, "and in the lowlands and meadows about the park fall easy prey to the hunter." Logically, as a result, wildlife conservation had to be extended to encompass all of the government lands surrounding the national park. [11]

Similar to calls for light burning in Yosemite's forests, military summaries of the wildlife problem made biological sense. The key to survival for park animals was protecting their habitat as a whole. In this respect Garrard's successor as acting superintendent, Major John Bigelow, Jr., further observed that the southwestern corner of the national park was especially important as wildlife winter range. Unfortunately, mining and logging interests had long ago targeted this section of the park for complete elimination. "There is no telling where this cutting out, once commenced, would stop," Bigelow remarked, despondent over the entire proposal. He too could only write to the secretary of the interior and plead his case that the flora and fauna of Yosemite National Park were every bit as significant as its scenic resources. [12]

Once again the military had made its review, moving gradually, as in the case of fire, from ambivalence about Yosemite's wildlife to increased knowledge and consensus. But although the army was still free to suggest management options, final approval had to come from Congress or the secretary of the interior. By 1904 a decision regarding Yosemite's boundary was clearly in the offing. On April 28 Congress approved a resolution directing Secretary of the Interior Ethan Allen Hitchcock to examine the boundary question, specifically to determine "what portions of said park are not necessary for park purposes, but can be returned to the public domain." On June 14 Secretary Hitchcock formally announced the creation of a federal boundary commission, composed of Major Hiram Martin Chittenden, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Robert Bradford Marshall, a topographer with the U.S. Geological Survey; and Frank Bond, chief of the Drafting Division, U.S. General Land Office. By June 24 the three-member panel had reached Wawona to begin its investigation of Yosemite National Park. [13]

On July 9 the commissioners completed their observations in the field, including a pack trip north to Hetch Hetchy and visits to many of the prominent points of interest in and about Yosemite Valley proper. "The work was then transferred to San Francisco," the commission reported, "where it had been arranged to meet several parties who could not be seen at Wawona or in the valley." Among them was John Muir, who, in the opinion of the commissioners, "represents the best sentiment of the country in favor of preserving the Park." The group also met with state and federal politicians before drafting its final recommendations. [14]

As the author of the draft report, Major Hiram Martin Chittenden brought to his duties considerable knowledge about the national parks. Among his achievements was service in Yellowstone, where his initiative had led to significant road improvements. His book about Yellowstone, published in 1895, was also among the first and most comprehensive surveys of the region. Now, in the instance of Yosemite, he acknowledged the significance of conflicting points of view regarding the readjustment of its boundaries. "There is first an almost universal feeling... that the park be not cut down if it is possible to avoid it. On the other hand," he remarked, "the existing situation is such as to lead to continual trouble in the administration of the park." The resolution of that dilemma called for determining the original purpose of Congress in establishing the preserve. Generally, a national park was a "fixed and rigid institution... set apart because of some great natural attraction or historic event which it is desired to preserve or commemorate." In all cases affecting economic development, a "more elastic" institution was much preferred. The duty of the commissioners was therefore unmistakable—the elimination from Yosemite National Park of any lands limited in natural wonders but rich in natural resources. [15]

Ultimately, the presence of so many private holdings in the park was even more fundamental to the commission's decision. Landowners had "the right to build roads and in some cases railroads, take out ditches, use a certain amount of timber, drive stock across Government lands, etc." If those privileges were denied, the government virtually compelled claimants "to abandon the development of their property." Obviously such conditions were "very undesirable within a national park." For this reason the commission believed "from the beginning of its work" that all "private holdings should be gotten rid of, so that there shall not remain within the park a single vested private right." Finally, the commission argued, any "sources of temptation" were themselves "a constant menace to the existence of the park, such as mineral lands and other valuable resources." Mineral deposits especially were impossible to protect. Nor would the outright purchase of every claim solve the problem indefinitely; "there would still remain the knowledge of the presence of precious metals in these mountains, and this would form a temptation of the strongest kind to trespass on the reservation and seek to cut it to pieces." [16]

Considering the commission's own stated concern—the protection of Yosemite—its recommendation that the government do the cutting beforehand seemed to defy any logical explanation. With that recommendation the commissioners bent to the very forces that they themselves had identified as injurious to Yosemite's integrity and survival. But the congressional resolution authorizing the study left the commissioners no room for expressing their private concerns. They instead were to identify "what portions of said park," not if those same portions, could easily be returned to the public domain (italics added). [17] In short, the commission's recommendations were predetermined by Congress. Any personal regrets of the commissioners aside, Congress expected them—as government civil servants—to designate which lands in Yosemite could immediately be restored to full commercial use.

All told, Chittenden reported, those lands amounted to 542.88 square miles. Eliminating that area would remove "the greater part of private timber claims," he noted, further reassuring Congress of the commission's dedication and thoroughness. Likewise, "practically all mineral lands" would be excluded, relieving "the park of that never-ending menace to its future existence." Again the irony of his statement was sharp and incredible. The park would be saved, but first one-third of it had to be dismantled. The commission did admit that private holdings could simply be purchased; the problem was that "all private claims would very likely cost as much as $4,000,000, and the mineral lands would still remain a perpetual source of trouble." The commission "therefore decided to recommend the rejection of all that can be spared without serious detriment" to the park, leaving to Congress—at its discretion—whether or not to restore select parcels of private land to government ownership at some time in the future. [18]

In a gesture of compensation, the commission did recommend an extension of the northern boundary to include an additional 113.62 square miles of mountainous terrain. A major objective was guaranteeing protection for the branches of the Tuolumne River watershed. "Already a large portion of its waters is appropriated," the report stated, "and the time may soon come when municipal needs will further draw upon them." In other words, an extension of the boundary northward had its own practical rationale. "There are no patented or mineral lands in this tract," Chittenden remarked. Rather the watershed was "particularly prized by the people of California for the use that it will yet be to the State." Granted, portions of the region possessed "features of great scenic beauty, notably the Hetch Hetchy Valley on the Tuolumne—a second Yosemite—Lake Eleanor, and the Tiltill Valley." Yet "overwhelming sentiment" for protecting this territory derived basically from concern that its watersheds not become contaminated by sheep and cattle grazing. The commission agreed that by extending the northern boundary of the park, "this difficulty will be diminished." [19]

In summary, the report provided an inventory of each of the boundaries of the park, highlighting in considerable detail those portions recommended for exclusion. On the west these sections included all of the timber belt between the Merced and Tuolumne rivers, with the exception of the Merced and Tuolumne groves of giant sequoias. "They are located in the very heart of the great forest," Major Chittenden conceded. The groves nonetheless were small and could easily be retained without jeopardizing the forty thousand acres of private timber claims lying all around them. Indeed the park line had been redrawn "so as to exclude the greater part of these holdings," he reassured Congress. Similarly, the new boundary removed "a considerable amount of mineral land in this section, some of which has mines that have been worked for many years." [20]

Turning to the southwestern corner of the park, the commissioners found "general consent" that all of the territory "as far north as the Merced River is of no value to the park and should not have been included originally." The region encompassed numerous mines that had already turned out "several million dollars' worth of ore." Thus the commission concluded, "From every point of view the park will be better off without this section." [21]

Similarly, for the opposite boundary the commission recommended excluding "all territory east of the great Sierra divide south to Mount Lyell, and thence all east of the San Joaquin—Merced divide to the present south boundary of the park." Here again, the presence of valuable mineral lands justified the deletions. "The scenery is of that grand and permanent character which can not be impaired by the works of man," the report further argued, insisting that the areas eliminated would not be unduly harmed. More to the point, pulling the park line back to the mountain divide provided "an excellent natural boundary which leaves little if any mineral land to the west." [22]

Finally, the commission recommended that the South Fork of the Merced River serve as part of the new southern boundary. While "forming a good line" it conveniently excluded "a portion of the private claims at Wawona," claims the government might otherwise have to purchase. Elsewhere the southern boundary could remain much the same. [23]

Congressional approval of the final report followed swiftly and with only limited discussion. On December 5, 1904, Secretary of the Interior Hitchcock submitted it to Congress; only two months later, on February 7, 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law the act redrawing the boundaries of Yosemite National Park. [24] The lines determined by Congress were identical to those originally finalized by the boundary commission, suggesting again that its recommendations had been a foregone conclusion.

To the small but growing preservation community, the act of February 7, 1905, was just another sign of the vulnerability and impermanence of the national park system. Only four years earlier, in February 1901, Congress had also passed the so-called Right-of-Way Act, empowering the secretary of the interior to allow utility corridors across all public lands in the West, including Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant national parks. [25] Conceivably, each of the parks might be crisscrossed with aqueducts, tunnels, power lines, and utility poles. To be sure, the act specifically provided for every known form of utility transmission. Thus the portent of the act was dramatically obvious—if ever Yosemite, Sequoia, or General Grant National Park stood in the way of a public utility, that utility, rather than the park in question, would hold the upper hand.

Fearing the worst, preservationists nationwide began marshaling their forces. The formation of the Sierra Club in June 1892 had already proven significant for the future of Yosemite. Throughout the 1890s the club challenged every proposal to reduce the national park; although the act of February 7, 1905, would annul these earlier victories, the club learned important lessons about state and national politics. Its influence was further evident in 1904, when the boundary commissioners invited comment from club leaders. John Muir, Joseph N. LeConte, and William E. Colby, composing a special committee authorized to investigate the Yosemite boundary issue, formally responded to that request in a letter dated August 23. [26]

Reluctantly, the three men agreed with the federal park commission that townships two, three, and four south, range nineteen east, comprising 108 square miles of land along the western boundary of the park, ought to be withdrawn and added to the Sierra Forest Reserve. The club had been swayed by knowledge of the fact that so many private holdings existed in this area. Otherwise the club opposed additional withdrawals as "too great an encroachment upon the wonderful scenic features." For example, no changes should be made along the northern and southern boundaries, with the exception of slight adjustments required by the elimination of township four south, range nineteen east. Similarly, the committee urged "that no territory" be withdrawn to the east. Rather Muir and his associates asked for the addition of 72 square miles to the eastern boundary—all of township two south, range twenty-six east, and the western halves of township one north, range twenty-five east, and township four south, range twenty-seven east. "We make this recommendation for the following reasons," the men concluded. "The park is not sufficiently protected on the east. . . from the invasions of sheep and other private interests, the territory mentioned includes very few private holdings and, finally, it embraces many scenic features of such importance and of so remarkable a nature that they should be made a part of the national park." [27]

Predictably, the boundary commissioners rejected all but the Sierra Club's endorsement of boundary eliminations in the timber belt to the west. Indeed, the commission argued, Muir, LeConte, and Colby simply could not have been aware of the reasoning behind its decision to place the eastern boundary of the park along "the crest of the mountains." Again the basis for that decision was economic reality. "Valuable mineral lands will be excluded," the commission noted. "The extension of the boundaries, as proposed by the Sierra Club, would include the Tioga mines, a large number of private holdings, and the mining town of Mammoth." Their presence in the park would only lead to "new complications in the east," problems little different from those the commission had "sought to get rid of in the west." The club's chief concern, protection of the scenery, would not be served by merely extending the boundary. The scenery itself was "on too large a scale." Besides, the territory lost to the park would still be retained by the government "in a forest reserve." [28]

But the Sierra Club had come to realize the sense of false security in that argument. Government ownership was no longer the crux of the issue; rather the debate hinged on emerging distinctions between federal forests and parks. The commissioners themselves admitted that a forest reserve was "a creature of Executive proclamation, pursuant to a general act of Congress." The law in question was the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, which gave the president unilateral authority to designate "forest reservations" on the public domain. It followed that any president might simply invoke "the same process" to change a forest reserve or have it "annulled altogether." Similarly, the secretary of the interior had "wide latitude" to grant a variety "of privileges on the reserved lands, such as the right to open up mines, cut timber, take out ditches, graze cattle, build roads, etc." In short, the commission conceded, although a forest reserve provided "sufficient protection to save timber lands from destruction," it also simultaneously encouraged "the proper development of many of their natural resources." [29] And that was just the issue—what levels of exploitation were undeniably "proper"? On the other hand, national parks generally were not open to any form of resource development, not even development regulated by federal officials. Thus the Sierra Club could find little reassurance in statements that territory lost to Yosemite National Park nonetheless would remain in government ownership.

However the commission had argued its case, the irony of its report was still inescapable: to protect Yosemite from development, first the commission would throw out of the national park everything subject to development. Members of the commission, most notably Hiram Martin Chittenden, defended that contradiction to the bitter end. "It was the purpose of our Commission," he wrote Robert Underwood Johnson, for example, "to eliminate from that Park everything that might form a strong inducement from outsiders to attack the reservation." Certainly, Chittenden thought, Johnson would agree that those motives were sincere. After all, he concluded, pleading his own sense of helplessness, "If there are gold mines in a public reservation there is simply no use in trying to prevent their development." [30]

Regardless, the damage had been done. "Game seems to be gradually on the decrease," Major H. C. Benson, acting superintendent, reported to the secretary of the interior on September 30, 1906. "The park as originally constituted... [had] extended on the south and west well into the low country, reaching the plains on the extreme southwest." As a result, national-park lands had provided "a winter resort for game between the high Sierras and the low plains"; most important, game seldom had gone "beyond the borders and was therefore fairly secure." But all that had changed. The act of February 7, 1905, by eliminating the timber belt and most private claims, had excluded from the park "all land lying lower than 5,000 feet... with the exception of the Yosemite Valley itself." What that fact portended for game was already apparent. In winter, migrating animals were forced out of the high country onto lands recently excluded from the park. But although those territories had historically been wildlife range, any semblance of protection had obviously been dropped. Game "grown fairly tame" while in the park seemed to be an easy target for unsportsmenlike hunters seeking only "large bags." [31]

As Benson further noted, reduction of the park had not come to a close with the act of February 7, 1905. Yet another excision, approved on June 11, 1906, eliminated an additional sixteen square miles of territory on the southwest boundary, ostensibly to allow railroad access into the park between Wawona and Yosemite Valley but also—and more to the point—to facilitate logging operations beginning on private lands along both sides of the Wawona Road. As one of the few military superintendents to serve in his post for more than a single season, Benson was able to observe the cumulative effect those boundary adjustments had on park wildlife. Thus in 1908 he repeated: "Game is on the decrease. Each reduction of the park has cut off another portion of the winter resort of game." Growing numbers of "so-called hunters" were simply lying in wait beside springs and along game trails, "shooting every animal that is unfortunate enough to cross the boundary to get water." Even so, the solution he had first proposed in 1905 still seemed radical indeed. If allowed ten thousand dollars to erect fifty miles of barbed-wire fence across the Merced River watershed, he intended to force animals and hunters to stay on their respective sides of the new park boundary. [32]

Yosemite had been spared, but the price seemed crippling. Fully one-third of its original area had been lost to mining, logging, grazing, and utility access. Granted, a scientific awareness of natural resources was yet to be realized; certainly none of the military superintendents, despite their wide travels in the park, had compiled what might be accepted today as base-line data about natural environments. Basically, knowledge about plants and animals stemmed from personal observation and commonsense reasoning. For example, even if Major Benson did not count wildlife populations fully and systematically, he did observe that certain species, such as deer, seemed hard hit by the reductions in their former winter range.

The future of those lands was also becoming clear. Those in government ownership passed into the control of the U.S. Forest Service, a new federal agency approved only one week prior to the park adjustment act of February 7, 1905. Motivated by a deep conviction that natural resources existed solely for human benefit, Forest Service leaders reaffirmed that lands adjacent to Yosemite National Park would be opened to many forms of commercial development. [33] Given both that management philosophy and the size of park reductions, friends of Yosemite seemed more than justified in harboring further apprehension about the fate of its forests, watersheds, and wildlife populations.

Barely a few years separated the reduction of Yosemite National Park from the next blow to fall on its natural resources. A short distance within its northwest boundary as recently aligned, roughly twenty miles north by northwest of Yosemite Valley proper, lay Hetch Hetchy, considered by early publicists to rival Yosemite Valley itself. But unlike its distinguished counterpart, Hetch Hetchy enjoyed only a sprinkling of visitors. To be sure, the absence of roads and hotels in Hetch Hetchy preserved many of the wilderness charms already sacrificed in Yosemite, including untrammeled meadows and carpets of wildflowers. Yet the lack of visitors also had its drawback. By the turn of the century, Yosemite Valley was known to millions of Americans, whereas Hetch Hetchy's knowledgeable following numbered but a few thousand.

As early as the 1880s the city of San Francisco had begun scouring the High Sierra to find a suitable source for a permanent fresh-water supply. Obviously a reservoir in Yosemite Valley—already protected as a park was out of the question. Hetch Hetchy, on the other hand, had several compelling advantages, including limited awareness of its natural features. Granted, Hetch Hetchy rivaled Yosemite Valley, if on a somewhat reduced scale. Granted too, in 1890 Hetch Hetchy itself was included within Yosemite National Park. Still, the floor of Hetch Hetchy was already in private hands. The decision was made: San Francisco would ask for Hetch Hetchy as its reservoir site.

What San Francisco had not foreseen was the growing ranks and influence of the preservation movement. Among members of the Sierra Club in particular, Hetch Hetchy quickly passed from obscurity into regional prominence. Accordingly, San Francisco's initial petition in 1901, to dam the Tuolumne River at the valley's outlet, ran into a storm of opposition. Sympathies within the Interior Department itself lay with preservation; in 1903 Secretary Ethan Allen Hitchcock officially denied a dam permit as "not in keeping with the public interest." [34]

Eventually, of course, Hitchcock could be overruled. And indeed in 1908 his successor, James A. Garfield, finally awarded San Francisco its permit to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Led by the Sierra Club, preservationists carried their battle to Congress, but the outcome was swayed from the start by utilitarian points of view. Simply, the reservoir was practical and apparently needed. Besides, Yosemite Valley had already been protected, and Hetch Hetchy was touted as its rival rather than its replacement. The argument was very basic: If the United States had two Yosemites, could not the lesser be dammed? By wide majorities in both houses of Congress, Garfield's permit was ultimately upheld, and on December 19, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson affixed his signature to the act allowing San Francisco full rights to the Hetch Hetchy Valley. [35]

So often and exhaustively has this story been told that historians have ignored its overriding significance. Essentially, much like the realignment of Yosemite's boundaries in 1905, the outcome of the Hetch Hetchy controversy was a foregone conclusion. The federal park commission had noted in 1904 that the readjustment of the national-park boundary did not "exclude the very valuable water resources"; fortunately, all were "capable of a use which will enhance the beauty of the park and serve the public as well." Put another way, water development need not detract from the beauty of Yosemite. The commission resurrected the long-standing argument that dams in the high country could protect the spectacle of park waterfalls during the dry summer months while further contributing to municipal water supplies. With reservoirs, the best of both scenery and utility could be enhanced, adding "beautiful lakes to the landscape," maintaining "the cataracts throughout the season," and, finally, conserving "the water for the people below." [36]

In the end, the loss of Hetch Hetchy was another example of the victimization of Yosemite by its own utility. Perhaps increased knowledge of its plants and animals, coupled with scientific evidence corroborating the requirements for survival, could have swayed a few proponents of development to reconsider their stance. Even so, that argument was in the future. Meanwhile, Yosemite National Park had both its defenders and its prophets, most notably the fledgling Sierra Club and its president, John Muir. But even Sierra Club leaders were prone to disagree and, occasionally, to contradict the emerging opinion that national parks ought to embrace other resources besides scenic wonders. Beyond that consensus, what preservationists needed most—more knowledge and more numbers—they simply did not have. Yosemite under those circumstances had done well just to escape without further losses. That fact, at least, was some reason for comfort as the dark cloud of Hetch Hetchy settled over the entire national park movement.


Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness
©1990, University of Nebraska Press
runte2/chap6.htm — 17-Mar-2004