Mini-Course:

Can We Afford the Wilderness?

The Battle still rages at the heart of the conservationist movement

by Ken Chowder


"The present flourishing triumphant growth of the wealthy wicked, the Phelans.... and their hirelings, will not thrive forever.... we may lose this particular fight, but truth and right must prevail at last." - John Muir

"He [John Muir] is a poetical gentleman. I am sure he would sacrifice his own family for the sake of beauty. He considers human life very cheap." - James D. Phelan

They were both good men. John Muir, a self-described "poetico-trampo-geologist-bot," was the first great American advocate for wilderness, the first president of the Sierra Club, a nationally popular writer and naturalist. James D. Phelan, the reform mayor of San Francisco, was the fiery opponent of monopolies, a champion of the public good. They were good men - and they were vitriolic enemies.

In fact, the dispute between Muir and Phelan still rages today, in only slightly altered form. There are still two conflicting answers to the question What is wilderness for?

The particular argument between Muir and Phelan concerned a remote mountain valley more than 150 miles from San Francisco with the odd name of Hetch Hetchy. San Francisco, a city on the end of a dry peninsula, was in chronic need of fresh water; in 1901 Mayor Phelan proposed damming the valley to create a reservoir for San Francisco. At the time, only a few hundred people had ever seen Hetch Hetchy but it was, not so coincidentally, in Yosemite National Park.

John Muir had spent many years in Yosemite, climbing its mountains, exploring its most remote corners, and Hetch Hetchy was one of his favorite places on Earth. It is "one of Nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples," he 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 and the Sierra Club raised enough of a protest to have Phelan's proposal turned down. Undaunted, Phelan tried again in 1903, again in 1905, again in 1907. To his way of thinking, a dam in Hetch Hetchy would provide drinking water and electricity, and, crucially, free San Francisco from the monopoly of the spring Valley Water Company. The idea that preserving scenery was more important than saving his city from economic injustice infuriated Phelan. "John Muir loves the Sierras and roams at large, and is hypersensitive on the subject of the invasion of his territory," Phelan wrote. "The 400,000 people of San Francisco are suffering from bad water and ask Mr. Muir to cease his quibbling."

Subduing the wild

Actually it was far from quibbling. The debate over Hetch Hetchy concerned the very definition of conservation. At the time conservation was still very new. For the first European settlers the wild continent had been a wolfish, godless enemy to be subdued; the mark of Satan, the Puritans thought, was on all things wild. As naturalist Aldo Leopold put it, "A stump was our symbol of progress." But as wilderness slowly became both less dangerous and less infinitely vast, it began to seem more valuable, more attractive.

By 1901 the new conservation movement was already a house divided. The "utilitarian" school of conservation believed in "wise use" of the land: husbanding the resources of wilderness to provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people. The "preservationist" school believed that wilderness should be left exactly as is, untouched, like a cathedral of god. Which should have priority, the needs of man or those of wilderness itself? The debate began early and persists to this day.

The first national debate over the use of wilderness in U.S. history, the Hetch Hetchy struggle lasted 12 years. To most people the conflict seemed one between two Gods: water and light for San Francisco versus saving the beauty of the wild mountain valley. But both sides saw it as simple right vs. Wrong, and the invective flowed. Muir wrote of "James Phelan, Satan and company." He described the dam's proponents as "mischief-makers and robbers," as "temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism." Dam supporter William Kent wrote of Muir that he was "a man entirely without social sense. With him, it is me and god and the rock where god put it, and that is the end of the story." San Francisco's city engineer called the preservationists "short-haired women and long-haired men"; the pro-dam San Francisco Chronicle called them "hoggish and mushy esthetes." Muir said of his critics: "They all show forth the proud sort of confidence that comes of a good sound irrefragable ignorance."

The 1906 earthquake, causing a fire that destroyed much of San Francisco, seemed to underline the city's need for water; and in 1908 a city referendum resulted in a -1 margin in favor of a dam. But in the nation at large Muir and the Sierra Club, using articles, pamphlets and broadsides, successfully whipped up public opinion in favor of preserving the valley. Letters began to pour into Congress by the thousand; most major newspapers published editorials condemning the dam. "The people are now aroused. Tidings from far and near show that almost every good man and woman is with us," Muir wrote in 1913. "Therefore be of good cheer, watch, and pray and fight!"

On December 6, 1913, after 12 years of fighting, the Hetch Hetchy question came to a final vote. The U.S. Senate passed the bill authorizing the dam with a 43-25 vote. The New York Times wrote, "The American people have been whipped in the Hetch Hetchy fight."

"I'll be relieved when it's settled, for it's killing me," Muir has written. In fact, he did become sick not long after the bill's passage, and died of pneumonia in December 1914.

But John Muir had his revenge. The Hetch Hetchy defeat did wonders for his cause. The grassroots nature of the anti-dam protest widened preservationist support tremendously; a vague general approval of wilderness hardened into a movement capable of sustained political action. "The conscience of the whole country," as Muir put it, was "aroused from sleep."

The case of the sinister dam

The Hetch Hetchy decision was the beginning, not the end. Curiously, many of the great wilderness struggles since Hetch Hetchy have had the same general outline: the argument is often about a dam proposed for a site in a national park or protected area. "In the view of the conservationists, there is something special about dams," wrote author John McPhee, "Something ... metaphysically sinister." David Brower, longtime head of the Sierra Club put it succinctly: "I hate all dams, large and small. If you are against a dam, you are for a river."

In 1913, the time of the Hetch Hetchy decision, only a handful of conservation organizations existed; 40 years later the number was over 300. And in 1954 they all mobilized for war.

This time the dam was proposed for Echo Park - part of the Dinosaur National Monument on the colorado-Utah border. Again the integrity of the National Park system was at stake. Again the dam's opponents, led by David Brower of the Sierra Club, took their case directly to the public. The wilderness advocates saturated the presss with anti-dam advertisements, produced a cautionary film (Two Yosemites), and a book This is Dinosaur . The public- relations campaign was massive and the public response unparalleled - mail to members of Congress ran 80-1 against the dam.

This time the preservationists won. After five years of public pressure, the project's backers caved in. Ironically, it was the well-honed political skills of the environmentalists - in theory the group without political clout that carried the day. A member of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs said the proponents of the dam had "neither the money nor the organization to cope with the resources and mailing lists" of the preservationists.

The Dinosaur debate had many familiar elements. Congressmen constantly expressed ambivalence, citing the difficulty of choosing between two Goods. The wild canyon was undoubtedly a good thing; but so were water, light and food for the desolate southwest. Similarly, preservationists were reluctant to denigrate dams in general, or dismiss the whole of progress. What had come to the surface again was a characteristically American duality. Paired contradictions such as Beauty and Utility, or Religion and Science can often occupy twin places of honor in the American pantheon. One pair that has much affected wilderness in the 20th century is the will to master the wild yoked to the desire to worship it; progress and preservation. As author and environmentalist Wallace Stegner wrote, "No other nation on Earth so swiftly wasted its birthright; no other, in time, made such an effort to save what was left."

After Dinosaur, preservationists began to press for an umbrella bill that would create a national system of wilderness protection. The Wilderness Act had a rough passage, with Congress spending eight years debating and revising the measure. The final enactment was largely the result of one man's tireless devotion: Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society plugged the initial idea, wrote the original draft, saw the bill through no fewer than 66 rewrites, spoke to all 18 hearings only to die four months before his beloved brainchild became law.

The struggles continue

The Wilderness Act of 1964 did not, of course, close the book on struggles between utilitarians and preservationists. During the 1960s dams were proposed for two sites in the Grand Canyon itself. The Central Arizona Project had the support of the President, but in a result that would have been almost unimaginable in 1913, environmentalists, led by David Brower, defeated the dams and preserved the canyon. Today, the broad concept of wilderness has achieved a certain sanctity; wilderness, in its dotage, has become hallowed. "For it can be a means," Wallace Stegner wrote, "of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope."

Still, there are at any given time numerous firestorms over wilderness raging in this country. Some of the hottest of the moment: the bush Administration, despite the huge Exxon Valdez oil spill, still hopes to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil development; the U.S. Forest Service is under fire for logging 450 million board feet of timber annually from Alaska's Tongass National Forest; and environmentalists in the Pacific Northwest are pushing hard to save old-growth National Forests and protect the imperiled spotted owl.

The battle sites change, but the basic problem remains the same: "the very old problem," as Roderick Nash wrote in Wilderness and the American Mind, "of whether parks, reserves and wildernesses are for man ... or for nature." In conservation, as in everything else, some things never change. But what has changed, in the 77 years since the Hetch Hetchy decision, is the face of the land itself. So much less wild land remains that the reasons for developing it need to be that much stronger before they begin to make sense. In short, we need wilderness more because there is less of it.

As the next century gallops closer, a second change in the ongoing Man vs. Nature argument grows increasingly clear: One of the species that has become endangered by the rush of progress is humankind itself. The accidental but terrifying byproducts of modernity such as nuclear waste and acid rain have made preservation, in the end, perhaps the most utilitarian stance of all. So the old duality of Nature and civilization is, in some sense, no longer a duality; the two have become an environmental version of the Odd Couple -- their fortunes curiously but inextricably linked, from now on.

History, of course, is the playground of irony. It is certainly true that the steady growth of the preservationist cause is John Muir's revenge for the Hetch Hetchy defeat; but I've recently discovered that Muir's revenge has a second, more private side.

Exploring the grounds of Villa Montalvo -- James D. Phelan's lovely Saratoga, California, estate, I found a bust of John Muir, of all people, in a central place. So the craggy visage of John Muir himself now lords it over James Phelan's garden, gazing out from atop the steps. Meanwhile, the former utilitarian mayor no doubt turns ceaselessly, furiously, and uselessly in his grave.


For further reading:

The American Conservation Movement: John Muir and His Legacy, Stephen Fox (University of Wisconsin, 1986).

Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash (Yale University Press, 1982).

Encounters with the Archdruid, John McPhee (Farrar, Straus and Geroux, 1971).

"The Wilderness Letter," Wallace Stegner in The Sound of Mountain Water (Doubleday, 1969).

"The Wilderness Idea," a 58-minute film by Lawrence Hott and Diane Garey (1989). For information write Direct Cinema, Ltd., P.O. Box 69799, Los Angeles, CA 90069 or telephone 213-396-4774.


© 1990 by Ken Chowder. Reprinted by the author's permission from Modern Maturity, (June-July, 1990).