August marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service. Writer Wallace Stegner once described our national parks as “America’s best idea.”
If our national parks are our best idea, then establishment of the Park Service was preceded three years earlier by what, at least from a conservationist perspective, could very well be called “America’s worst idea.”
That would be the damming of Yosemite National Park’s spectacular Hetch Hetchy Valley, which remains underwater today.
In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Raker Act, which allowed for the building of the O’Shaughnessy Dam to supply earthquake-stricken San Francisco with water – at the expense of an integral part of one of the world’s most beautiful national parks.
Sierra Club founder John Muir died a little more than a year after Wilson signed the act. Some say he died of a broken heart. Indeed, Muir had fought a valiant but losing battle to save Hetch Hetchy. He once famously wrote: “Dam Hetch Hetchy! 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.”
Muir’s Presbyterian background called forth images of cathedrals and churches, but I believe Muir would have embraced the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, which admonishes us all in our daily lives to repair the world. When it comes to America’s worst mistake, conservation-wise, we now have the opportunity to bring back Hetch Hetchy Valley and, quite literally, to repair the world.
A small, idealistic nonprofit, Restore Hetch Hetchy, has commissioned studies showing that bringing Hetch Hetchy Valley back from its watery grave is possible. It is currently pursuing its claim in the California courts that restoration can be achieved without losing a drop of water supply. The dam can be removed and the water stored at other facilities downstream. Yet the latte elite in San Francisco have attempted to dismiss Restore Hetch Hetchy as a loony fringe group of eco-crazies.
It’s a hypocritical position. Self-styled San Francisco environmentalists consistently oppose the diversion of water when it goes to Southern California. But when it comes to the suggestion that a dam in America’s foremost national park was a mistake that should be corrected, they out themselves as environmental NIMBYs.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a former mayor of San Francisco, has described the Hetch Hetchy water as San Francisco’s “birthright.” She also described the idea of restoring Hetch Hetchy as the “worst idea since selling arms to the Ayatollah.” She is right that Hetch Hetchy is a “birthright.” Not the water, but the valley itself: that mighty, transformative temple of nature, which in its sublimity, like the rest of Yosemite, is quite simply irreplaceable.
Beyond the hypocrisy, they are simply wrong. It is never a given that we can undo the damage that humans have wreaked upon the environment, never mind the damage to a treasured national park. When that opportunity exists, as is the case with Hetch Hetchy Valley, then it becomes a moral imperative to correct our mistakes and heal the world.
In the philosophical writings of the Jewish humanist Martin Buber, humans are urged to complete God’s work by bringing out the “divine sparks” that are locked up in objects, in people, in places in the world around us. Restore Hetch Hetchy heroically attempts to do this on the grandest of scales.
One hundred years after the founding of our National Park Service, the time has come to unlock the divine spark, which we have literally buried. The time has come to perform the ultimate act of tikkun olam and to bring Hetch Hetchy Valley back to life.
John Mirisch is the mayor of Beverly Hills. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.