Earlier this week, an article by Gregory Thomas, travel editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, highlighted a recent analysis by economic consulting firm EcoNorthwest that put a dollar amount on the revenue that might be generated by draining the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and reopening Hetch Hetchy Valley to tourism. The economic potential—calculated to eventually top $100 billion—is suggested to be yet one more argument for the restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley to “a more natural state — of the variety that stirred John Muir’s soul a century ago.” The EcoNorthwest study was commissioned by Restore Hetch Hetchy.
Now I’m a huge proponent of restoring Hetch Hetchy. Given the opportunity, I would have sided with John Muir and his passionate and vocal opposition to the dam project in the early 1900s. The pre-dam photos capture an unspeakably beautiful valley fringed by granite and waterfalls, easily a fraternal twin of the famous valley that lies just to the south. Today, flooding any area of a national park, particularly this one, would be unthinkable. So yes, eliminating the reservoir and even tearing down O’Shaughnessy Dam would be a welcome change in Yosemite.
But there’s restoration and then there’s restoration. All of what the article discusses is hypothetical, of course, but it’s always good to pay attention to the direction the wind is blowing: “The recreational value of a restored Hetch Hetchy Valley — outfitted with a level of guest infrastructure proportional to that of Yosemite Valley — could amount to as much as $178 million per year.” Oh boy.
Neither the report nor the article describes in any detail what this proportional infrastructure would be, but one can guess what it might entail from the activities mentioned: sightseeing, camping, and exploring. Casual visitors to national parks require roads, campgrounds, concessions, parking lots, and restrooms. New trails and new structures would surely be needed. Access at this level would bring traffic, litter, crowds, wildlife conflicts (think bears), and casualties (think roadkill). Spreck Rosekrans, the executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy, says that the EcoNorthwest report “confirmed what we already know — that [draining the valley] is a tremendous opportunity to do something wonderful for our world-class national parks and the visitors that go to them.”
But is development a wonderful thing for a national park? Is it a wonderful thing for the wildlife that call those protected acres home?
EcoNorthwest’s Mark Buckley asks whether Hetch Hetchy Valley is being used in its “most valuable way.” He wonders whether returning the valley to “a more natural state” would have unanticipated benefits. Perhaps. But these benefits would not be without costs. Indeed, additional reporting in the Chronicle, by Thomas and others, suggests that the quality of outdoor experiences in Hetch Hetchy Valley would be eroded if economics is the primary driver of change there.
And the effects of development at Hetch Hetchy would reach beyond the valley itself. The article notes that currently, “recreation around the reservoir is restricted to mainly hiking and backcountry camping, guest infrastructure is limited, and the valley sees only about 1% of Yosemite’s annual visitors — approximately 44,000 per year.” And that is precisely why the backcountry in this part of Yosemite is such an incredible place. Turning Hetch Hetchy Valley into a destination for Yosemite Valley’s overflow—or making it a red carpet that encourages even more visitors to Yosemite—will further populate the trails and the backcountry around Hetch Hetchy, which would inevitably change the character of the wilderness experiences one can have there. There will likely be more fire rings, more litter (intentional and accidental), more conflicts with bears, more social trails, more signs of human incursion that detract from the beauty of the area and the backpacker’s sense of exploration and discovery.
I’ve had some disconcerting encounters with careless backpackers recently, reminding me that not all who traverse the high country do so with respect and reverence for nature foremost in their minds. Even the 1% of Yosemite’s annual visitors to Hetch Hetchy have left a mark: litter and used toilet paper and (on one occasion I witnessed) attempts to carry out natural materials as personal souvenirs. The national parks belong to the people, yes, but unfortunately some people act in ways that make them less deserving of such a rich inheritance, and the damage soon becomes apparent.
Even benign visits have unintended consequences as the scale increases. Much has been written of the traffic jams and other problems of visitor volume in Yosemite Valley. Would we want to duplicate that—in any form—in another of the park’s scenic places?
The trailhead at O’Shaughnessy Dam has been the starting point of my most memorable and scenic trips to date in Yosemite National Park. Beehive Meadows, the Vernon Lake area (and its peregrines!), and Jack Main Canyon are just a few of the spectacular on-trail attractions in Yosemite’s northwestern corner, and the off-trail splendors of that section of the park are without a doubt worth the extra efforts required to reach them. As much as I’d like to see Hetch Hetchy Valley drained before the end of my life, and as much as I believe that everyone should have access to transformational experiences in the wilderness, especially in Yosemite, if the plan for Hetch Hetchy becomes one of plunder and moneymaking, then I’d rather the place stay underwater.
My hope for the future of Hetch Hetchy Valley is a natural state that would make John Muir proud of our restraint. Mostly staying out instead of enthusiastically cashing in. Restoring the valley to an attraction with perhaps a few trails but no roads. A place that could provide a more authentic wilderness experience for those who would venture in. A valley left largely undisturbed to recover its original majesty.
Wilderness is most valuable for all when it remains wild. But doesn’t it seem as though this idea is rapidly losing its power to motivate human beings, disconnected as we have collectively become from a natural world that has been so hospitable for our evolution and so generous for our wonderment?