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The Battle over Hetch Hetchy: America's Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism 51058th Edition

4.7 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195313093
ISBN-10: 0195313097
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Editorial Reviews

From The New Yorker

From 1901 to 1913, John Muir and the newly formed Sierra Club fought against the construction of a giant dam that would flood the majestic Hetch Hetchy Valley, in Yosemite National Park, and, in the process, built the first nationwide environmental movement. The burgeoning city of San Francisco saw the dam as a solution to its chronic water problems (surrounded on three sides by salt water, it obtained all its fresh water from a monopoly) and as a way to generate cheap electricity. The environmentalists eventually lost the battle, but Hetch Hetchy became the rallying cry for many future victories, including the passing of the National Parks Act, in 1916. Muir's opponents could display a hysterical anthropomorphism—one said, "The mountains are our enemies"—but Righter's approach is unfailingly evenhanded and illuminates how the opposing ideologies formed in the Hetch Hetchy fight became the source of future environmental debates.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

In this meticulously researched history, Righter examines the transformation of Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley from Sierra Nevada refuge to modern-day reservoir. Presented in the past as a fight between conservationists and big business, the Hetch Hetchy battle was actually over the valley's future as a site for water storage or a place to develop lucrative nature tourism. By the late 1890s, San Francisco politicians decided that the city should have a municipally owned water system, and that the water should come from a source in the Sierra Nevada. By 1901, San Francisco mayor James Phelan applied for reservoir rights in the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Although the application was denied, opinions changed in the wake of the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire. Righter employs dozens of characters--from naturalist John Muir to newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst--and follows the story from the completion of the dam in 1934 to the 1998 movement to restore Hetch Hetchy to create an engrossing chapter in the history of the American West. Rebecca Maksel
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 332 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 51058th edition (August 17, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195313097
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195313093
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 0.7 x 6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #221,231 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By R. R. Costas Jr. on September 13, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is the only book I have ever read on the Hetch Hetchy matter and I don't think I would have to read another one. Although the author reveals himself as more of an environmentalist in the sense that he would have like to have seen the valley preserved, I felt he was very, very fair in describing the motivations, merits and flaws of both sides and debunking the myth that this was solely enviromentalism vs progress. His research led him to the conclusion that even John Muir was not looking to keep the valley in a pristine state. He and his followers thought that such beauty should be experienced and shared by everyone and they wanted to develop the valley for tourism, probably of the kind we see today in the Yosemite Valley. Other themes were public power vs. privately owned utilities and municipal water systems vs. private water companies that were supplying the city prior to the HH dam being built. All these debates were also taking place in the backdrop of Teddy Roosevelt's progressivism, the recent birth of the National Forest and National Park systems and the devastation of the 1906 SF earthquake and fire (for which there wasn't enough water to successfully fight).

The author manages to tell his even story in a relatively short 244 pages, including interesting chapters on the legacy of the HH controversy and the talk of restoring the valley someday, a notion which I consider very far-fetched given the costs of replacing the dam's water as well as the hydroelectric power it produces. Pleasant as the sight of the valley would be, in today's world of fighting for every public dollar and the pressure to build more electric generation, I can't imagine we would agree to this. The author admits as much, but applauds the fact that it is at least talked about.
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Format: Hardcover
Note/question: Are a certain breed of modern environmentalists giving my review "unhelpful" ratings because of the "myth-free" comment (which is true), or what?

The biggest myth, and one that I'll admit was in my head, was that John Muir and the early Sierra Club wanted to preserve Hetch Hetchy as wilderness, with all the ideas of wilderness that we have today, whether post-Aldo Leopold or post-Wilderness Act.

Not true.

They envisioned development of the whole area, just somewhat less intensely than Yosemite Valley. In fact, a number of Sierrans openly favored building a road **up the Tuolumne Valley to the Meadows!** (Others favored building the Yosemite Valley road further up the Merced, then turning it left toward the Tuolumne Meadows as well.)

In short, to some fair degree, the battle over whether or not to damn Hetch Hetchy was a split between the "conversationist" and "preservationist" wings of early 20th century environmentalists. A minority of Sierrans supported damning Hetch Hetchy, in fact.

Meanwhile, the whole battle moved beyond environmental issues and definitions to pushing for public utilities, and San Francisco was served by both private water and private electricity at this time.

One can see the makings of an epic conflict that crossed the desks of multiple Interior secretaries before being hammered out in Congress.

And Robert Righter tells this story in detail, giving full play to San Francisco's side, including today, ever since Interior Secretary Donald Hodel first broached the idea of dam removal and brought Hetch Hetchy's history back to daylight.
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Format: Hardcover
Robert W. Righter has extended his reputation as a leading American environmental historian by this informative and well written account of the building of the Hetch Hetchy dam in Yosemite National Park in the early 1900's. He is candid and even handed in admitting that there were and are no easy answers in this complex history of building a dam in a national park. This book follows his earlier and acclaimed book (Crucible for Conservation, The Struggle for Grand Teton National Park) which contains the compelling story of the establishment of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming in which the issue was whether the Park as a contiguous and viable entity would ever be established over the objections of local and regional political and other interests.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Who was Abe Ruef? What affect, indirectly or otherwise, did he have on Hetch Hetchy? Robert Righter's thoughtful history of the valley identifies Ruef among notable others and the roles they played in determining Yosemite's fate as part reservoir. Righter provides a rich story of a booming and brash San Francisco (which is reason enough to read the book), followed by an informative account of the building of O'Shaughnessy Dam, as well as the environmental legacy of Hetch Hetchy and the cause of restoration. Ultimately, Righter reveals myths surrounding the damming of John Muir's beloved valley and even myths surrounding Muir. The story is captivating and despite knowing the outcome, one cannot help but follow along with the hope that things would have turned out differently.
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A very important book that should be widely read as the nation wakes up to the glorious possibility of restoring this majestic valley to its original pristine state for all mankind, for all time. It should be done, it can be done, it will be done. This book fully documents the past; it is up to us to write the future.
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