John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and the Battle for Hetch Hetchy

Brian Manetta

 

 “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.”
                                      -Henry David Thoreau

          In 1913, America focused its attention on a small area of wilderness in Yosemite National Park.  The City of San Francisco had proposed that a dam be built in Hetch Hetchy Valley, which would supply much needed water to the city.  A group known as Preservationists, led by John Muir, was staunchly opposed to the building of this dam.  They felt that building a dam would destroy the natural beauty that the area was known for.  Another group led by Gifford Pinchot, the Conservationists, felt that a dam would benefit the people greatly, and pushed for its construction.  Almost every major newspaper in the country followed the story, and it captured the nation’s attention.  An environmental issue had never had this kind of impact on America before. 

          America is a country forged from the wilderness.  When the first settlers arrived on the shores of the New World, they were met with wilderness that stretched as far as they could see.  As the country grew, the wilderness was forced to yield to progress.  People cleared the wilderness to make room for houses, farms, and churches.  When the country began its westward expansion, the wilderness gave way to civilization.

            During the industrial revolution, wilderness suffered as industry used natural resources as fuel.  The census of 1890 revealed that the great American frontier had become obsolete.[1] These factors caused a change in the way people viewed wilderness: “As wilderness shrank, its popularity grew.  By 1900 people began believing that the wilderness might be worth defending.  Their uneasiness with progress was the origin of the American conservation movement.”[2] By the turn of the 20th Century, the American people wanted to return to a simpler way of life.  Groups like the Boy and Girl Scouts and the Audubon Society were becoming increasingly popular as ways for people to reacquaint themselves with the wilderness.[3] The American conservation movement grew from the idea that although resources were abundant, without protection they may not last. 

            Two men who left their mark on U.S. environmentalism were Gifford Pinchot and John Muir.  Pinchot became the fist professional forester in the United States.  Muir was the president and co-founder of the Sierra Club.  Even though both men were invaluable assets in the fight for wilderness, they had very different ideas concerning the environment.  Pinchot coined the term conservation, and he believed that the natural resources that the country had should be used wisely and effectively.  Muir on the other hand, believed that the environment should be preserved in its natural state, without human interference.  The main goals of the Conservation and Preservation movements were the same: to protect the remaining wilderness.  The means that the two movements used to obtain the end result were very different.

            Gifford Pinchot was born into a wealthy family in 1865.  His parents were influential, and were regular guests at the White House.  He attended Yale, and after graduation he traveled to Europe to acquire training in the field of forestry, because training of this kind was not available in the United States.  In Europe, Pinchot met Dr. Detrich Brandis, the most respected forester of the time.  Brandis urged Pinchot to attend the French Forest School in Nancy.  Upon his graduation from Forest School, Pinchot returned to the United States, where he realized that the deforestation that had occurred in France was quickly becoming a reality in the U.S.  Pinchot was afraid that mass consumption of timber would cause the United States to run out of trees.[4]

          Pinchot’s first job was examining and making recommendations for timberlands in Pennsylvania. After this, John Vanderbilt employed him as head forester for his estate, Biltmore.[5] While working at Biltmore, Pinchot proved that he was a great forester.  By applying the conservation techniques that he learned in Forestry School, the forests under his control were profitable.  The United States government took notice of Pinchot’s talent, and he became head of the Division of Forestry in 1898.  When Theodore Roosevelt became president, he appointed Pinchot as Chief Forester of the U.S. Forest Service.[6]

          To Pinchot, conservation was the only way to keep the natural resources of the United States from being exhausted.  “Conservation, above all, was a scientific movement, and its role in history arises from the implications of science and technology in modern society.”[7][i]   Pinchot was well trained in the scientific aspect of conservation.  He was also capable of bringing conservation to the average citizen.

          “The central thing for which conservation stands is to make this country the best possible place to live in, both for us and for our descendents.”[8] Pinchot believed that conservation must be utilitarian.  Natural resources should be used for the greatest good of the greatest number of people.  Natural resources had to be used so that the country could continue to prosper, but they needed to be used in the right way, so that future generations would be able to utilize them as well. 

          In his book, The Fight for Conservation, Pinchot laid out three clear principles of the conservation movement.  “The first principle of conservation is development.”[9] Conservation can only work if people use natural resources.  Without the use of natural resources, there would be no need for conservation.  Many critics of conservation at the turn of the century believed that conservation would stifle industrial development.  Pinchot argued that development is key to conservation. 

One of the main goals of the early conservation movement was to develop water use as a way to clean up the air and to avoid deforestation.  Pinchot believed that better use of water would mean better conditions for transportation.[10]  This would lead to cleaner air because transportation would be more efficient.  Water could also be used for power.  If anything, the conservation movement increased development because it forced the need to find alternative sources of power. 

          Pinchot’s second principle of conservation was the prevention of waste.  The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a time of unabashed recklessness on the part of industry.  It was not uncommon for logging companies to clear-cut massive tracts of forestland.  The trees that could not be shipped off were simply burned.  Because clear-cutting destroys young trees as well as old ones, it was nearly impossible for these lands to reproduce themselves.[11] Forcing large-scale users to curb their wasteful practices both reduced waste, and led to further development, as more efficient means to extract the resources became necessary.[12]

          The third principle examined is that natural resources must be used to benefit the many, not for the profit of the few.[13] This concept is one of the most important of conservation.  The natural resources of this country were being utilized by a small number of individuals who were prospering greatly from them.  Pinchot brought the use of natural resources back to the American citizen and away from big business.  Pinchot believed that conservation was a grassroots campaign.  “The most valuable citizen of this or any other country is the man who owns the land from which he makes his living.  No other man has such a stake in the country.”[14] By making Americans responsible for their natural resources, he forced people to make decisions that would benefit the population as a whole, instead of allowing large businesses to make those decisions.

            As conservation became a more mainstream idea, it began to take on a life of its own.  Conservation extended past the use of natural resources, and became a movement.  The Conservation movement was a movement for the people.  It was against big business destroying the average person’s right to utilize the natural resources that were theirs.  The fact that Pinchot believed that people, not big business, should control resources is not surprising, since Pinchot was a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, who was known as a trustbuster and was in favor of the regulation of big business.

            Pinchot’s efforts to conserve natural resources were used widely.  He inspired many reforms in American environmental policy.  In 1905, Pinchot succeeded in transferring control of the National Forests to the Forest Service.  He also succeeded in protecting public interests by granting the use of dam sites for power development.[15]

            One of the main tenants of Pinchot’s policy of conservation was that the natural resources of the United States were put here so that people could utilize them.[16] The other side of the environmental argument did not share this utilitarian concept.  The preservationists, led by John Muir, felt differently.

          John Muir was born to strict Calvinist parents on April 21, 1838.  Muir led a very different life than Pinchot.  He was a second-generation Scottish immigrant.  His father was a staunch taskmaster who made his children work hard on the family farm.  When he was not working in the fields, Muir enjoyed exploring the Wisconsin landscape.  In 1860, Muir enrolled in the University of Wisconsin.  During this time he began to invent things.  He invented numerous clocks and other interesting devices.[17] While he was working in a broom factory, Muir suffered an injury that left him temporarily blind.  While he was recovering from his injury, Muir swore that if his eye healed, he would give up his inventions and devote his life to God.  “For the rest of his life, Muir would equate God with light.”[18]

            At the age of 29, Muir embarked on a journey that would change his life.  He wrote perhaps his most famous book, A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf during his journey.  After his journey from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico, Muir traveled to California, where the pristine Sierra Nevada Mountains changed his life. In 1874, Muir began to write a series of magazine articles.  He became successful through these articles, “Studies in the Sierra.”[19] In 1892, Muir became the president and co-founder of the Sierra Club, an organization whose purpose was to protect Yosemite National Park.[20]

            Muir’s attitude towards the environment was different from Pinchot’s.  While Pinchot desired the greatest good for the greatest number of people, Muir chose to embrace the spiritual side of Environmentalism.  For Muir, the wilderness was a spiritual place: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”[21] Muir’s beliefs were very similar to those of Henry David Thoreau’s.  Nature was not a storage space for natural resources, but a sacred place that should be cherished because of its very existence.  Muir felt that nature was a place where people could go to escape from the problems of everyday life. 

            To understand Preservationism, one must first be familiar with why Preservationists were appalled by civilized society.  The Preservationist believes that life in the industrial towns of the nation destroyed the souls of the people who live and work there.  They believe that nature can help them to regain some of what they have lost.  This concept had been around since the end of the Civil War, when Thoreau wrote his book, Walden.

 In Walden, Thoreau paints a bleak picture of the people living in America at the time.  He claims that they are being conquered by debt because they have amassed too many loans in a vain attempt to achieve happiness through material possessions.[22] Thoreau contends that by returning to nature, these same people could be saved from their debt, and become more spiritual beings.  By simply surrounding themselves in wilderness, they could not only regain what they had lost by ignoring nature, but become better people as well.  Muir carried on this tradition of transcendental thought as he spoke and wrote about preservation.

            Preservationism is a spiritual movement.  It centers its belief on the fact that God created the universe for the enjoyment of every living thing, not simply for humans. 

The world, we are told, was made especially for man-a presumption not supported by all the facts.  A numerous class of men are painfully astonished whenever they find anything, living or dead, in all God’s universe, which they can not eat or render in some way what they call useful to themselves.[23]

 He could not believe that many people thought that nature was there for them to destroy as they pleased.

          Muir believed that the wilderness should be left alone, because man could not know what was right for nature.  Only God could, because he had created it.   Nature was Muir’s temple, and his home.  He lived in nature and also worshipped it, because it was given to humanity by God to enjoy.  For Muir, the wilderness was a sanctuary, free from machines and the grind of city life.[24]

          At many points in his life, Muir found that living in the mountains was better than living in a city or town.  Even though Muir was married and had children, he decided to make his home in the mountains.  He was not afraid of the wilderness as many people of his time were.  While others believed that the wilderness was a frightening place, Muir felt more comfortable alone in the woods than with people.  He became known as John of the Mountains.[25]

          Muir and Pinchot met one day in 1896.  They were both members of a commission appointed by the Secretary of the Interior to survey the wilderness.  The two men were extremely fond of each other.  They both shared a passion for the outdoors that could not be matched.  Because of Muir’s age, Pinchot found him to be a father figure.  The two environmental leaders went on hikes together and shared their knowledge.  The two held each other in high esteem until one disagreement caused them to sever their friendship.[26]

           This disagreement was about sheep.  Pinchot believed that they should be allowed to graze on public land.  It would keep the native grasses from overtaking the landscape, and it would allow shepherds free grazing areas.  Muir became incensed when he heard that Pinchot favored such a policy.  He believed that sheep were locusts, and that they were destroying the mountains.  The two had a shouting match in the lobby of a hotel in 1897, and their friendship was severed.[27] The two men never spoke again, the scope of their respective movements were too different. 

          The Conservationists were anthropocentric.  They believed that the natural resources that were found in the United States were put there solely for the use of mankind.  They had no problem cutting down a forest, as long as it was done in a scientific manner that would allow it to be cut down again at some point in the future.  Conservation had no room for spirituality.  As Pinchot said, it stood for progress.  

            Conservation is a communal enterprise .  The resources were for all of the people to use.  There was no majesty, no grandeur in a tree, there was simply a tree that could one day become lumber or a piece of paper.  Spirituality never entered the equation.  Society had a duty to use the tree to the best of its ability.  This was the same for all of the other resources as well.  Science could decide what the best way to use the natural resources was. 

          Preservationism, on the other hand, was extremely spiritual.  For the preservationist, a mountain was not simply a large source of natural resources.  A mountain was a temple, a home, and a spiritual entity with a mind, heart, and voice of its own.  Preservationists believe that God put the mountain there for a purpose that can not be known.[28] Mankind’s only job was to worship the mountain for its natural beauty.

          Preservationism focused on the individual instead of society as a whole.  Muir believed that the only way to truly understand the majesty of nature was to be in it.  He practiced what he preached.  By going into the mountains, Muir felt that he was enlightened.  He could not understand the Conservationist view of utilizing nature.  To him, nature was not something that could be used.  A tree was not lumber, it was a shrine in which man could see God.  The mountains were not underground oil or coal reserves, but gateways to heaven.[29]

         By the beginning of the 20th century, both environmental movements were becoming popular.  Theodore Roosevelt, a mountain man at heart, was President.  He did not want to see the remaining wilderness areas destroyed while he was in charge of them.  He was a lover of wilderness, and expanded Yosemite National Park at Muir’s urging.

         The two major Environmental schools of thought were going full steam ahead.  Muir’s Sierra Club newsletters were read by people all over the country.   Pinchot was becoming famous for his progressive policies.  The Environmental movement as a whole was on the edge of becoming a national movement.  It seemed as if one event was needed to get the remaining holdouts involved.

          The two sides of the environmental movement clashed over a small valley in Yosemite National Park.  The City of San Francisco wanted to dam Hetch Hetchy valley to secure a water supply for the city.  A previous water shortage and a devastating fire had alerted city officials to the need for a constant supply of water to the city.  It seemed like a logical choice for the city to use the water from the Chiwalame River that ran through Hetch Hetchy.[30]  The site was almost a dam already.  Two sheer cliffs ran from along each side of the river.  All that was needed was a dam stretched from cliff to cliff.

          The only problem with this plan was that Hetch Hetchy was part of Yosemite, which had been given to the state of California in 1864, and was turned over to the Federal government and became Yosemite National Park in 1905.  This wilderness area was special for many reasons.  Besides the breath taking beauty of the mountain peaks and the dense forests, Yosemite was the first area set aside for recreational use.  The citizens of California had been given a great gift.  The land was protected by the United States Congress in 1864: “…the said State shall accept this grant upon the express condition that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation; shall be inalienable for all time; but leases may be granted for portions of said premises.”[31]

           The land that the city of San Francisco coveted was in a protected area.  The land was leasable, but for periods not longer than ten years.  A dam would mean a permanent lease on the protected area.  This caused a major controversy.  The dam’s supporters believed that water was more important than fifty-year-old statutes that protected a part of the woods that few people had ever been to.  The critics felt that building a dam was breaking the law, not to mention destroying an area of incomprehensible natural beauty.[32]

          The mayor of San Francisco was turned down by the Secretary of the Interior when he first proposed the issue.  He was not discouraged by this, and sought help from Pinchot.  Building a dam in the valley was a Conservationists dream.  It would provide drinking water for a great number of people.  Pinchot felt that the dam would break the monopoly that the Spring Valley Water Company had held for a number of years.[33]  The project would satisfy Pinchot’s need for development, as well as his idea that the natural resources of the country were for the people to use: “The benefits to be derived from use as a reservoir far outweigh the valley as a place of beauty.”[34]

          Pinchot took his argument to Roosevelt, who was emotionally aligned with Muir, but politically obligated to side with Pinchot.  Roosevelt granted the permit to the City of San Francisco, and the bill went to Congress.  The House of Representatives approved the dam, which led to eight congressional hearings on the subject over the course of a decade. The newspapers began to cover the budding controversy.  Nearly every major newspaper in the United States condemned the building of the dam.[35]

          By 1913, the battle over Hetch Hetchy was in full swing.  Congress held several debates on the subject.  Muir and Pinchot were in direct conflict with each other.  “No fight could more clearly illustrate the divide between conservationists and preservationists.”[36]  Both sides had their supporters and critics.  The entire country became involved.  People from across the nation were voicing their opinions on an area of wilderness that fewer than one hundred people had ever seen.

         John Muir was one of the few people who had seen Hetch Hetchy.  It was one of his favorite places in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.  Muir swore that he would protect Hetch Hetchy.  As the battle got underway, there were heartfelt arguments on both sides.  Muir’s arguments were very spirited.  He described Hetch Hetchy in spiritual terms: “Hetch Hetchy Valley, far from being a plain, common, rock bound meadow, as many who have not seen it seem to suppose, is a grand landscape garden, one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples.”[37]

        To Muir, the people who thought that damming Hetch Hetchy was a necessary project were nothing but Capitalist monsters who saw nature as a means for profit.  “These Temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.”[38] Muir did not think of nature in terms of dollars and cents, the way that some people did.  He thought of nature only as a temple.  He could not comprehend how people could destroy a place of worship: “Dam Hetch Hetchy!  As well dam for water tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has been consecrated by the heart of man.”[39]

         One of Muir’s major fears about the construction of Hetch Hetchy was that it would be a watershed event in environmental history.  If one National Park could be irreparably changed in the name of progress, than what would stop it from happening to another.  If Hetch Hetchy was dammed, Muir believed that it would cause a slippery slope that would eventually eat up all of the wilderness area in the country.[40]  Muir could not live in a country without wilderness.  It was his home and his place of worship.

        But Muir was also a practical man.  He knew that depriving a city of water would not sit well with many Americans.  He proposed that dams be constructed in other parts of the Sierra’s or in Toloumme.  These proposals were shot down as unfeasible.  The Conservationists wanted to make their stand over Hetch Hetchy.[41]

         Pinchot’s arguments were of a more scientific nature.  He claimed that the valley was a common feature of the landscape, and that building a dam would serve multiple purposes.  Not only would it provide water and break a monopoly, but it would also become a beautiful lake where tourists go to see the beauty of nature.  This would mean that roads would have to be built, there would be progress, development, and a large amount of money would be spent.[42]  This would keep the economy steady and provide numerous jobs.  For Pinchot, there was too much good that could come out of building the dam. 

          At three minutes to midnight on December 6, 1913, the Senate ended nearly a decade of hearings and arguments by voting 43 to 25 in favor of the dam.  President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill into law on December 9, 1913.  Muir was devastated by the loss.  He took solace in the fact that “the Pinchot’s of the world would not survive forever.”[43] He died the next year a bitter man.

          For Muir, the battle over Hetch Hetchy was not in vain.  There have been no intrusions into the national parks since the dam was built.  In 1916 the National Park Service Act was passed, federally protecting over 90 million acres as official wilderness areas.  The National Parks were John Muir’s legacy.[44]

          Pinchot went on to become a two-term governor of Pennsylvania.  He died in 1946 after a long career in public service.  The City of San Francisco relies on the dam for nearly all of its water to this day.

          The battle over Hetch Hetchy exposed the weaknesses in both the Conservation and Preservation arguments. Both Preservation and Conservation had their bad points.  In the industrial society that the United States had become, Preservationism was impractical.  One of the reasons that America had become so prosperous was that it had an abundance of natural resources that could be used to produce the products that would ensure wealth.  The City of San Francisco needed water, and it was hard for people to believe that Hetch Hetchy Valley, as beautiful as it was, should be left alone if the people of San Francisco did not have water. 

            One of Conservation’s main weak points was that it placed no intrinsic value in nature.  It was a cold, calculating science that did not believe that there was any value to nature except that by destroying it, a profit might be made.  Muir hated Conservation despite the fact that it was trying to help nature because it did not condemn its destruction.  Conservation not only helped people destroy the wilderness, it did so more efficiently.

          Both Preservationism and Conservationism did little to help the city dwellers of America.  Almost none of these people had ever seen Hetch Hetchy, and could not comprehend either point of view.  A person who had never seen the proposed dam site could not believe that he, as an American citizen, was its appointed protector.  Nor could he believe that the mountains were his home and place of worship.        

          Hetch Hetchy was a very important part of U.S. Environmental history.  Historian Roderick Nash explains: “The most amazing thing about the Hetch Hetchy controversy was that it occurred.”[45] The whole country was involved in the controversy.  Environmental policy was major news.  Newspapers were involved and taking sides.  People in places like New York City, who had never and would never see the valley, had opinions about its use.  A controversy about environmental issues had never before happened in America.  Despite the fact that an irreplaceable part of nature had been lost, the environment had become a major issue to America and its citizens. 

          John Muir and Gifford Pinchot were both great men.  Their ideas have become the basis of the American Environmental movement.  What can not be forgotten when reading about the Hetch Hetchy controversy is that despite the fact that Muir and Pinchot had differing views on how the problem should be solved, they were both fighting for the same cause.  Nature was important to both men.  It can be argued that what Pinchot was fighting for materially, Muir was fighting for spiritually.  Pinchot wanted to build the dam so that the people of San Francisco could have water.  Muir wanted to keep the dam from being built so that people could drink in the beauty of nature save their souls from the drudgery of everyday life in the cities.


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[1] Merchant, Carolyn, ed.  Major Problems in American Environmental History.  (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company,  1993)  396

[2] The Wilderness Idea: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and the First Great Battle for Wilderness. Diane Gary and Lawrence Hott (Florentine Films, 1990) videocassette

[3] The Wilderness Idea: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and the First Great Battle for Wilderness

[4] The Wilderness Idea: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and the First Great Battle for Wilderness

[5] McGeary, M. Nelson.  Gifford Pinchot, Forester-Politician.  (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960)  28

[6] “Gifford Pinchot” <http://www.pinchot.org/gt/gp.html>

[7] Hayes, Samuel P. Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency.  (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959)  2

[8] Pinchot, Gifford.  The Fight for Conservation. (Seattle: Washington University Press: 1910)  79

[9] Pinchot, 43

[10] Pinchot,  53

[11] The Wilderness Idea: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and the First Great Battle for Wilderness

[12] Pinchot,  43

[13] Pinchot, 46

[14] Pinchot, 21

[15] McGeary, 61

[16] Pinchot,  48

[17] John Muir: A Brief Biography.  <http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/life/muir_biography.html>

[18] The Wilderness Idea: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and the First Great Battle for Wilderness

[19] John Muir: A Brief Biography

[20] John Muir: A Brief Biography

[21] Muir, John.  Our National Parks. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1905)

[22] Thoreau, Henry David.  Walden.  (New York: Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston, Introduction Copyright 1948)  2

[23] Muir, John.  A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916)

[24] Smith, Michael.  “The Value of a Tree: Public Debates of John Muir ad Gifford Pinchot”  The Historian.  759

[25] The Wilderness Idea: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and the First Great Battle for Wilderness

[26] The Wilderness Idea: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and the First Great Battle for Wilderness

[27] The Wilderness Idea: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and the First Great Battle for Wilderness

[28] Muir, John, A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf

[29] Muir, John, A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf

[30] The Wilderness Idea: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and the First Great Battle for Wilderness

[31] U.S. Statutes at Large, Vol.  13, Chap.184

[32] The Wilderness Idea: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and the First Great Battle for Wilderness

[33] The Wilderness Idea: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and the First Great Battle for Wilderness

[34] Smith, 774

[35] The Wilderness Idea: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and the First Great Battle for Wilderness

[36] Smith, 774

[37] Merchant, 392

[38] Merchant, 394

[39] Merchant, 394

[40] The Wilderness Idea: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and the First Great Battle for Wilderness

[41] Smith, 777

[42] The Wilderness Idea: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and the First Great Battle for Wilderness

[43] The Wilderness Idea: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and the First Great Battle for Wilderness

[44] The Wilderness Idea: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and the First Great Battle for Wilderness

[45] The Wilderness Idea: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and the First Great Battle for Wilderness