Did Ken Burns get Hetch Hetchy right?

Did Ken Burns get Hetch Hetchy right?


In his 6 part series, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea", filmmaker Ken Burns devotes considerable footage to the seminal role that the damming of Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley played in the history of our national parks and the environmental movement overall.  

On reddit.com's "AskHistorians" page, a reader asks if Ken Burns got it right, or whether he was exaggerating:

"Ken Burns' National Park series framed the damming of the Tuolumne River and the flooding of Hetch Hetchy Valley as the poster child for insufficient advocacy for protection of natural wonders within the national park system. Was this for dramatic emphasis, or did the loss of Hetch Hetchy serve to galvanize further preservation efforts in the twentieth century?"

The short answer is yes, Burns got it right. There is no doubt that damming Hetch Hetchy Valley played a pivotal role in the history of environmentalism. It's one of the reasons that Hetch Hetchy's restoration will be such an inspiration - not just in California, but across the United States and around the world.

The longer answer, by someone we know only as "Reddit poster SnowblindAlbino" (with his permission), is worth reading. It's very good. 

nash_wilderness_300.jpg"This is in fact the classic case that serves the martyr role in the mainstream narrative of the wilderness protection movement. The common interpretation of the story was given great weight by Rod Nash's book Wilderness in the American Mind (Yale UP, 1967, 2001) which was itself foundational to the field of environmental history in the 1970s. As he (and most that followed) argued, the battle over Hetch Hetchy marked the first time large number of Americans spoke out against "progress," i.e. in favor of maintaining wilderness rather than developing it for what was argued to be a very progressive purpose: to provide a reliable water supply for the growing city of San Francisco in the years after the 1906 earthquake and fire. As such it later offered historians the perfect tale to frame the prevervation/conservation debates of the late 19th/early 20th century. The best complete analysis of the fight is found in Robert Righter's The Battle over Hetch Hetchy: America's Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism (Oxford, 2006) but there are literally dozens of articles and several other books that go into the story as well.

One of the most accessible versions of this classic telling is actually a documentary film called "The Wilderness Idea" from 1989; Nash is the featured talking head there. It presents the story quite nicely, placing Gifford Pinchot- TR's right hand man and the federal government's chief proponent of "conservation for use" --in opposition to John Muir, the wilderness advocate and voice of both Yosemite and the broader preservation movement. It is during this fight that Muir uttered his most-often-quoted words, "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." In presenting both of their stories the film places the Hetch Hetchy battle in both philosophical and political contexts, building nicely to the conclusion where the vote to authorize the dam is taken and Muir "dies of a broken heart" not long after. Great storytelling.

But to the actual question: did this event galvanize preservation efforts? Most American environmental historians would likely argue yes. It was the first time wilderness took center stage as a political issue for the public; congress heard from citizens around the country in favor of preserving a place they had never seen and most likey would never see. The intrusion into an existing National Park was unquestionably a reason (and an overt rationale) for the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, just three years after the Raker Act authorizing the dam was approved. Unfortunately for preservation advocates, the Republican administrations of the 1920s were not particularly interested in conservation programs (national parks, national forests) so while some important wilderness advocates came on the stage in that decade (Aldo Leopold and Robert Marshall within the US Forest Service, for example) the public was not terribly vocal in agitating for wilderness preservation in the immediate wake of the damming (the dam was completed in 1923).

righter_book_300.jpgUltimately, though, the loss of Hetch Hetchy was used as a political tool in support of wilderness for decades that followed. Perhaps most directly in the fight over a proposed dam in Echo Park, a canyon within Dinosaur National Monument (as it was then known) in Colorado. Mark Harvey's excellent book A Symbol of Wilderness: Echo Park and the American Conservation Movement (Washington, 2001) tells that story in detail but the general idea is that the feds (the Bureau of Reclamation in this case) wanted to build another dam inside a national park (monument) to expand the Colorado River Storage Project. The case was remarkably similar to Hetch Hetchy, in that the location was remote and had relatively few visitors, while the water and power the project produced would serve growing cities. Opponents, led by David Brower and the Sierra Club, pulled out all the stops politically and used Hetch Hetchy as an example of a great loss-- Echo Park was presented in part as an opportunity for redemption. The dam was ultimately defeated there, but at the cost of allowing another to go in downstream at Glenn Canyon, which was later deemed a major loss as well.

So yes, the Burns film is right in that it presents a very traditional interpretation of the Hetch Hetchy battle and its impact. Nash's book cemented that narrative as almost an Ur-text for conservation/environmental history 50 years back, and it's been used in similar ways by most of us in the field since. Righter's book is a great read if you want to get at the details, or you can find a retelling of the story in just about any introductory text in US environmental history or history of environmental politics."