This land is our land: The bitter debate over America’s public spaces

A view of the Steens Mountains from the Buena Vista Overlook located in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge // Photo by Jeff Sorn

A view of the Steens Mountains from the Buena Vista Overlook located in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge // Photo by Jeff Sorn

A debate over the fate of federal lands has intensified. It’s an ideological battle with all the Washington, D.C., hallmarks—behind-the-scenes political maneuvering, influence peddling, and media wars. One side slanders their opponents as short-haired women and long-haired men—elitists who are impediments to progress. Their adversaries, who contend they are dealing with none other than Satan and Co., insist that even in America, there are some things that money shouldn’t be able to buy.

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While this sounds like it was ripped out of today’s news cycle, this bitter dispute on federal conservation policy actually erupted a little more than 100 years ago over the future of a valley on the edge of Yosemite National Park. Even after a century, the conflict continues to define the contours of conservation philosophy and policy in the United States.

The battle over the Hetch Hetchy Valley led directly to the passage of the Organic Act in 1916. The act created the National Park Service whose charge is “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same.” It is the legislative embodiment of the philosophy that some areas should be permanently off limits to development. But the battle over Hetch Hetchy also highlights enduring questions about federal versus local control over natural resources and who should determine the best use of America’s landscapes.

Sunset at Hetch Hetchy // Photo by Justin Gaerlan, Flickr CC 2.0

Sunset at Hetch Hetchy // Photo by Justin Gaerlan, Flickr CC 2.0

In the decades after the Civil War, the federal government began to institutionalize the management of federal lands, especially in the western United States. Having violently displaced the original inhabitants from their land (a story powerfully conveyed in Mark Spence’s “Dispossessing the Wilderness”), large tracts of basin, mountains, and range required some kind of oversight to avoid the kind of resource exhaustion pioneer conservationist George Perkins Marsh warned against.

“The earth is fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant,” Marsh wrote in 1864, “and another era of equal human crime and human improvidence […] would reduce it to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climatic excess, as to threaten the depravation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the species.”

Teddy Roosevelt (left) and John Muir (right) on Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California, in 1903 // Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Teddy Roosevelt (left) and John Muir (right) on Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California, in 1903 // Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

These sentiments were formalized in the forerunners to the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and, of course, the National Park Service. At least in terms of federal policy something approaching a national consensus had emerged by the turn of the 20th century; as Teddy Roosevelt, the first conservationist president put it, conservation was “a national duty.”

Gifford Pinchot, the first professional forester in the U.S. and first head of the Forest Service (1905), became Roosevelt’s evangelist for conservation. Pinchot had a utilitarian view of conservation, arguing that natural resources should be stewarded and judiciously used to benefit the greatest number of people.

This was at odds with an emerging preservationist movement, headed by naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir. Muir could not accept the conservationist desire to control nature, nor accept progress at the expense of beauty. He wrote extensively on humanity’s place within, not above, the rest of the natural world. His appeals for wilderness protection were directed to the hearts and souls of his readers—whereas conservationism appealed to their minds, wallets, and patriotic spirit.

Beginning in 1906 these competing visions collided over the Hetch Hetchy, a remote Yosemite valley that few people had ever seen. That year the lack of a reliable water supply exacerbated the fires that swept San Francisco in the wake of the great earthquake. Former mayor James Phelan and other civic leaders identified the Hetch Hetchy Valley as an ideal location for a publicly controlled reservoir—a case study for the “greatest good for the greatest number” utilitarian approach, and for regional control of natural resources. There was only one problem: Hetch Hetchy was part of a national park and, though rarely visited, an exquisitely beautiful place John Muir knew well.

Hetch - Hetchy Valley, Sierra Nevada Mts, Calif

Hetch Hetchy Valley circa 1911

Over the next several years the battle over the valley erupted in California, in Washington, D.C., and newspapers and magazines across the country, especially those read by the burgeoning middle and upper-middle classes. Readers’ anxieties about the urban, machine age were relieved by the idea that national parks and other preserves of “wild” nature could serve as an antidote to the “unnatural” character of cities. Muir and editors like Robert Underwood Johnson were able to mobilize such people in vocal opposition to the Hetch Hetchy project with almost religious fervor. “Dam Hetch Hetchy!” Muir wrote in 1912. “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.”

Nevertheless, at the end of 1913, the Senate voted to authorize the dam’s construction. “I appreciate the importance of preserving beautiful natural features of a landscape as much as anybody else,” a Connecticut senator declared. But more important were “the urgent needs of great masses of human beings for the necessities of life.” The approval of the dam project may have been a fatal blow to Muir, who died about a year after the Senate vote. Yet Muir’s challenge endures: how much should we sacrifice for these necessities, he asked, and to what extent are wild places and wildlife necessities themselves? And if they are necessities how shall we protect them?

Next page: The debate rages on

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