Presidents and Yosemite

Our Presidents and Yosemite

including Hetch Hetchy of course


President William Howard Taft (1909-1913) with John Muir in Yosemite. Taft authorized John Muir to accompany his Secretary of the Interior, Richard Ballinger, to Hetch Hetchy to determine whether a dam should be allowed.


Yosemite, one of America's most spectacular landscapes, has attracted the attention of several presidents over the last 150 years. Some have focused their attention on Yosemite's eponymous Yosemite Valley, visited by some 5,000,000 people in 2016. Others have played a role related to Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley - initially whether it should be dammed but more recently whether it should be restored.


In 1864, at the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation to preserve Yosemite Valley in faraway California for "public use, resort and recreation .... inalienable for all time". 


In the late 19th century, preserving our most spectacular natural landscapes for public use was a new and provocative idea. It was also too late for many European countries whose lands had already been fully developed. America's model for national parks has been copied around the world, and now includes places like Tanzania's Serengeti, Australia's Great Barrier Reef and Ecuador's Galapagos Islands. 


Abraham LIncoln (1861-1865)

Rutherford B. Hayes was the first president to travel to the west coast. He visited Yosemite when it was still managed by the State of California.



Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881)

In 1890, Benjamin Harrison signed the legislation which created Yosemite National Park. 



Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)


After camping in both Yellowstone and Yosemite (the latter with John Muir), Theodore Roosevelt's enthusiasm for protecting public lands increased. Roosevelt signed legislation to create Crater Lake and Mesa Verde National Parks. After the Antiquities Act was passed in 1906, Roosevelt used his executive authority to designate numerous national monuments, including Grand Canyon. (Grand Canyon became a national park in 1919.)


Roosevelt was initially opposed to San Francisco's proposal to dam Hetch Hetchy, but his view softened after the 1906 Earthqauke and Fire devastated the city.



Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)

San Francisco city leaders supported Wilson's election in exchange for the subsequent appointment of City Attorney Franklin Lane as Secretary of the Interior. Lane helped San Francisco with an all-out legislative push to allow the City to dam Hetch Hetchy. In 1913, Congress passed and Wilson signed the Raker Act, allowing the dam and reservoir to be built.


Widespread opposition to the Raker Act encouraged Congress to change course. In 1916, it passed and Wilson signed the National Park Service Act - a law intending to prevent, in large part, any more such intrusions. 



Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)

Franklin Roosevelt visited Yosemite (in 1938), as well as Yellowstone and the Great Smoky Mountains (shown here). 



Franklin Roosevelt (1929-1945)

John F. Kennedy visited Yosemite in 1962, during his short presidency.



John Kennedy (1961-1963)

In 1987 Donald Hodel, Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, suggested Hetch Hetchy could be restored and proposed federal studies to pursue restoration. Opposition in Congress, however, prevented studies from proceeding.


Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)

In 2007, the President Bush's budget included $7,000,000 to study restoration of Hetch Hetchy - following up on California's "State Study" in 2006 Congress again prevented any funds from being used for study of restoration.  



George W. Bush (2001-2009)

President Obama visited Yosemite in 2016, when the number of park visitors exceeded 5,000,000.


The White House did not respond to Restore Hetch Hetchy's request that it consider restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley.




Barack Obama (2009-2017)


Yosemite and other parks are an important part of our national heritage and our identity as Americans.  As Wallace Stegner opined "National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst." So it's no surprise that presidents have taken such interest in Yosemite, as well as other national parks.