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Hetch Hetchy Environmental Debates

Between 1908 and 1913, America witnessed its first national debate over environmental preservation when the growing city of San Francisco, California proposed building a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley to provide a steady water supply. The Hetch Hetchy Valley was within Yosemite National Park, however, and protected by the federal government. It was therefore up to Congress to decide the fate of the valley. National opinion divided over the question of whether San Francisco should have the right to dam the valley, or if the land should be preserved from development

At the heart of the debate was the conflict between conservationists, who held that the environment should be used in a conscientious manner to benefit society, and preservationists, who believed that nature should be protected, saved from human interference. Siding with the conservationists, San Francisco citizens argued that the reservoir was necessary for the health of their city. On the other side, preservationists, led by John Muir, argued that Congress should protect the Hetch Hetchy Valley from destruction. Muir and his allies believed that nature should be enjoyed for its beauty, and not merely used for its resources.

Hundreds of individuals and organizations from across the country submitted petitions to Congress regarding the valley. These petitions, some of which are included below, bear witness to the birth of environmental activism as citizens weighed in, expressing multiple opinions about the proper use of National Park land and the relationship between local interests and national values.

In the end, Congress passed legislation that enabled the creation of a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley. President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill into law on December 19, 1913. Although the preservationists lost this battle, the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley raised public awareness about the importance of preserving nature, and helped justify the creation of the National Park Service in 1916.

H.R. 7207, The Raker Bill, August 5, 1913

Resolution from the Graffort Club of Portsmouth, New Hampshire Against Granting San Francisco the Hetch Hetchy Valley, February 4, 1910

Petition from the Hypatia Women’s Club of San Francisco Supporting Granting San Francisco Water Rights to Lake Eleanor and Hetch Hetchy, February 2, 1910

Protest Against Diversion of Waters from Lands Requiring Irrigation from Citizens of Merced and Stanislaus Counties, California, May 30, 1913

Petition from the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society Against the Raker Bill, June 25, 1913

Petition from the Society for the Preservation of National Parks Against Granting San Francisco the Hetch Hetchy Valley, June 27, 1913

Petition from the Widows and Orphans and Mutual Aid Associations, Inc. of the San Francisco Fire Department Supporting the Raker Bill, November 24, 1913

Telegram from the Executive Board of the San Francisco District of the California Federation of Women's Clubs Supporting the Raker Bill, December 2, 1913

Petition from the University of Oklahoma Against the So-Called Hetch Hetchy Bill (H.R. 7207) December, 1913

Resolution by the Massachusetts State Federation of Women’s Clubs Against the Raker Bill, November 25, 1913

Resolution from the Augusta, Hallowell, and Gardner Central Labor Union of Maine in Favor of the Raker Bill, December, 1913

Telegram from the San Francisco Council No. 615, Knights of Columbus Supporting the Raker Bill, December 2, 1913

Petition from San Francisco Swedish Clubs Supporting the Raker Bill, December, 1913

San Francisco Examiner Petition to the Senate of the United States Supporting the Raker Bill, December, 1913


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