Restore Hetch Hetchy Valley. Then what?

I went to Yosemite for a couple nights last month (July 2015) and one of my agenda items was to see how Hetch Hetchy reservoir was doing. I’ve discussed Hetch Hetchy before (see History and Hetch Hetchy post) It is down only a little bit from where it was last year at this time. While there, I talked with a guy that was familiar with both the National Park Service and Hetch Hetchy. I asked him about the restore Hetch Hetchy idea and what he thought.

He said, “Okay. Let’s assume we can jump the hurdle with San Francisco and where the water is stored. Then ‘What’?”

That’s a good question. “Restore” Hetch Hetchy to what? By most accounts, it could be 100 years or more before Hetch Hetchy will once again become the full “mountain temple”, as John Muir called it. That’s assuming no one “helps it along.” So, “What?” Do we help it along? Do we replant the indigenous plants that used to grow there? Or do we let nature take its course? I imagine, in any case, we’ll want to dig up the tree stumps that were left after the trees were cut down prior to flooding the valley. Of course that will mean roads and heavy equipment. But, then “What?” Will we put in trails? Paved bike paths? Canoe Rentals? Campgrounds? General Store? Tent Cabins? Roads? Vehicle access? Parking? Ahwahnee-chee Hotel? Trams? Shuttles? Aren’t these all the environmental issues that are objections to Yosemite Valley?

Currently, the park gets about 4 million visitors a year (3.9 million in 2012, 3.8 in 2013, and 4 million in 2014)[1]. It is difficult to see how that number could increase much. My son and I were there a few summers ago. We had reservations at White Wolf in the high country, but arrived a bit before check-in and they would not let us in. So we decided to run down to the valley, but they said, “The valley is closed…it’s too full.” Hmmm, well, we decided to stay elsewhere, but the point is that there is just so much capacity that Yosemite can handle at all, then after that, you can’t get in. It is possible that traffic will expand during the off season, but it appears that, at least for the last 3 years, the park attendance has not grown, but hovered around 4 million per year.

There is good reason to wonder about over building Hetch Hetchy Valley. The whole Restore Hetch Hetchy movement was, interestingly, started with Secretary of the Interior in the Regan Administration, Donald Hodel (1985-1989). His suggestion was to restore the Hetch Hetchy valley in order to relieve pressure and congestion in Yosemite Valley. It had nothing to do with environmental concerns over a lost piece of nature. How long would it be if Hetch Hetchy were loaded up with amenities like those in Yosemite Valley it would become just as congested?

So maybe we leave it as a wilderness area, like 95% of the park. Accessible only by hiking, back packing or, maybe, horseback? No handicapped access. No bikes, no picnicking facilities, maybe a vault toilet or two. A ranger station here or there. But none of the hustle and bustle of Yosemite Valley. Hmmmm. Well, maybe.

John Muir called Hetch Hetchy “…a grand landscape garden, one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples[2]….” But even he had to coax his friends to visit it. There was very little motivation to go there. It would take two or three days in a stagecoach to get to El Portel, then another half day on horse back to reach the valley. There just wasn’t the motivation to travel another 20 miles on horse back to visit a smaller version of the Yosemite Valley with no amenities at all. Even today, maybe 50,000 visitors come to Hetch Hetchy (1.25% of the visitors to the park). If there are no more facilities then that exist now in the wilderness area, what motivation is there to come to a restored Hetch Hetchy? And, how would we get there; those of us that are not equipped for or have other issues with back packing?

Maybe something like what is done up at Tuolumne Meadows can be created, except year round. Some encroachments of civilization, but not a lot. Some parks, like Zion, don’t allow any vehicle traffic (except those staying at the $200+ per night lodge) into the park. You leave your vehicle outside the park and shuttle into the various features and destinations in the park.

My wife had an interesting suggestion along those lines. Keep everyone out until it is completely restored. Allow only environmental specialists directly involved with the restoration into the valley; no hiking, no backpacking, just restoration and, maybe, scientific research. However, viewing posts would be set up around the rim (or what is now the rim) that allow visitors to witness the current progress of the restoration. I like that idea[3]. Maybe, also, add kiosks, Gift Shops, parking, etc. which can all be located up at the rim in an environmentally compatible architectures rather than in the valley to reduce the impact of civilization on the valley as well as preserving the scene from the valley. When restored, keep the valley as a wilderness. We also keep these new facilities in place, leaving the valley as pristine as possible. That way, neither the public or the park can severely impact the environment of the restored “mountain temple.”

Should its care be left to the budget-constricted National Park Service? The same under budgeted park service that manages Yosemite Valley? Wouldn’t that fall right into the plans of Donald Hodel? In the mean time, ironically, the valley is already being preserved, as is, lying under 300 to 400 feet of water. The valley won’t be any more or less difficult to restore than it is today if we wait a year or two or even 100. So maybe we should wait until we know to what, exactly, the valley will be restored.

[1] NPS.gov and Park Statistics

[2] The Yosemite John Muir, From John Muir: The Eight Wilderness-Discovery Books, Diadem Books, 1992

[3] Not merely because I like my wife, though I do.