From B to Z, Secretaries of the Interior and Hetch Hetchy

Ballinger, Garfield, Lane, Ickes, Hodel, Norton and Zinke 


Secretary Donald P. Hodel (right), with (l to r) conservationist Tom Graff, actor Harrison Ford and Senator Lois Wolk, during the filming of "Discover Hetch Hetchy".

The Secretary of the Interior is responsible for managing most of the federally owned land in the United States. On the majority of this land, we allow development in one form or another - logging, grazing, mining and other commercial activities . 

We don't allow these activities, however, in our national parks. Our parks are America's crown jewels, and are enshrined by legislation "to remain unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

The damming of Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park played a seminal role in establishing our commitment to preserve these most spectacular landscapes. The national outcry over the decision to allow a dam in Yosemite led to the passage of the National Park Service Act three years later and gave birth to the modern environmental movement.

Some see Hetch Hetchy as an unfortunate but necessary sacrifice. We don't agree. Restore Hetch Hetchy believes we don't need to live with mistakes of the past. Returning Hetch Hetchy to its natural splendor will make Yosemite and our national parks whole once again, and will inspire future generations to be better stewards of all of our public lands.

Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy, in terms of acreage, is a small part of our national parks. Its iconic features and controversial legacy, however, have touched numerous Secretaries of the Interior during their tenures. It remains to be seen what role our present Secretary, or his successors, will play in Hetch Hetchy's future.

Below is a synopsis of Secretaries who have engaged with issues surrounding Hetch Hetchy over the last 100+ years: 

San Francisco initially expressed interest in damming Hetch Hetchy Valley in the 1880s. The City's efforts were thwarted, however, when President Theodore Roosevelt went camping at Glacier Point with naturalist John Muir in 1903. Roosevelt emerged from the trip with an increased commitment to protect public lands and with resolve to deny San Francisco permission to build a dam inside a national park

Roosevelt supported protection of Hetch Hetchy in spite of counsel from Gifford Pinchot, his close ally and head of the United State Forest Service. Pinchot favored a "utilitarian" use of natural resources which favored "the greatest good for the greatest number", and supported building a dam. After the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco, however, Roosevelt changed his mind. He authorized his Secretary of the Interior, James R. Garfield (son of President Garfield) to sign a permit which would allow San Francisco to dam Hetch Hetchy.


James R. Garfield

In 1909, William Howard Taft, Roosevelt's hand-picked successor, was elected President and picked Richard Ballinger to be Secretary of the Interior. While Roosevelt was on safari in Africa, Ballinger and Pinchot engaged in a bitter public feud over several conservation issues in Alaska and elsewhere. Pinchot was eventually fired, but the disagreement ruined the once close relationship between Taft and Roosevelt. 

In October 1909, Taft and Ballinger went to Yosemite to meet with John Muir. Taft asked Muir to guide Ballinger to Hetch Hetchy. Muir was apparently persuasive. The following February, Ballinger added conditions to the Garfield permit that San Francisco could not proceed with building a dam until it supplied additional evidence.



Richard A. Ballinger

The rift between Taft and Roosevelt split the Republican Party in 1912. Roosevelt challenged Taft for party's nomination. Taft won, but Roosevelt then ran as a third party "Bull Moose" candidate. 

Leaders in San Francisco offered their support to Democrat Woodrow Wilson on the condition that he appoint Franklin Lane, San Francisco's City Attorney, to be Secretary of the Interior. Wilson won the presidency, and duly appointed Lane as promised. Lane understood his marching orders well. His support for damming Hetch Hetchy encouraged Congress to pass the Raker Act and ensured the president's signature.



Franklin Lane

Interior Secretary Harold Ickes was not involved with Hetch Hetchy as a reservoir to store water, but he battled San Francisco's disposition of hydropower throughout the 1930's. The Raker Act stipulated that the power was to be used solely for public purposes, an issue that rankles public power advocates to this day. The battle came to a head in November 1941, and then quickly disappeared a month later. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hetch Hetchy hydropower was directed toward the war effort.



Harold Ickes

In 1987, Interior Secretary of Interior Donald P. Hodel was concerned about overcrowding in Yosemite Valley. Ike Livermore, who had served as Director of Resources in California under Governor Ronald Reagan, told Hodel there was another similar valley, but it was under water. Hodel talked to the local director of the Bureau or Reclamation, who assured him that San Francisco could improve its system and still get reliable deliveries of Tuolumne River water without storing it in Hetch Hetchy. Hodel then publicly proposed that restoration be considered. 

Hodel's proposal made national headlines and provoked an angry response from San Francisco. Dianne Feinstein, the City's Mayor at the time and now United States Senator, declared restoration to be the worst thing since selling arms to the Ayatollah.  San Francisco and its allies blocked funding for any restoration studies in Congress.



Donald P. Hodel

In 2004, when the Environmental Defense Fund published Paradise Regained: Solutions for Restoring Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley, Senator Feinstein and then SF Mayor Gavin Newsom dashed off a letter to both Secretary Gale Norton and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in opposition to restoration.

The Feinstein/Newsom letter did praise the "well intentioned environmental goals" (of Restore Hetch Hetchy and the Environmental Defense Fund)", but also erroneously stated that Hetch Hetchy is in Yosemite Valley. In 2007 Norton expressed skepticism about restoration during Q and A at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.



Gale Norton

Dirk Kempthorne replaced Gale Norton as Secretary of the Interior and, in 2007, the President's budget included $7,000,000 to study restoration of Hetch Hetchy. Feinstein and others defending San Francisco's interests deleted the Hetch Hetchy line item before Congress passed the budget.  



Dirk Kempthorne

In 2017, Ryan Zinke was sworn in as Secretary of the Interior after senate testimony in which he explained he was a "Teddy Roosevelt" conservationist and extolled the virtues of both John Muir and Gifford Pinchot. 

Were they alive today, Muir and Pinchot would undoubtedly still disagree on any number of issues. Pinchot might now realize that his "greatest good for the greatest number" view would now favor Hetch hetchy's restoration instead of retaining the reservoir. After all, such a view is similar to Restore Hetch Hetchy's claim, now before the California courts, that Hetch Hetchy is worth more as a valley than it is as a reservoir. 

And if Muir and Pinchot would be in agreement on Hetch Hetchy's restoration, surely Teddy Roosevelt and Ryan Zinke would be on board as well.



Ryan Zinke