Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Hike at Hetch Hetchy

Hetch Hetchy was the last battle of John Muir's career, and was one of his few failures. In the end the powers that be in Washington and San Francisco were just too strong, and the dam went forward. Thus a valley Muir considered the equal of Yosemite itself became a reservoir.

The loss of Hetch Hetchy was not in vain. It helped spur the movement to create the National Park Service, and became a rallying cry for the environmental and conservation movements. Rivers such as the Yampa and Colorado have been protected and their beauty preserved for future generations because people did not want another Hetch Hetchy on their hands. Above all, it is s reminder that just as we can protect the unprotected, we also must be vigilant in preserving what we have already protected.

Despite the controversy, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and its surrounding area is a beautiful place to take a walk. Located in a remote area far from the crowded Yosemite Valley, you can be assured you'll have plenty of solitude on the trails. During our 2+ mile walk, we only met a handful of people. As such, you can get lost in your thoughts.

Most of the park surrounding the dam is a designated wilderness area, and except for our walk across the dam and through the tunnel next to it was the site of our hike. We didn't go too far, turning around at a panoramic boulder strewn view of the mountains and reservoir. In the process we saw a few waterfalls, at least one of which likely would disappear as the dry summer crept along. It wasn't a taxing hike, with only a couple inclines that only flummoxed me because of my general decrepit fitness. Even considering this, it took a lot for me to be sensible and not continue on into the still snowy heights of the Sierra beyond.

While standing at the turnaround vista, the view of Hetch Hetchy made me think about the state of the American environmental movement. We have come far in restoring our natural heritage, and have many victories to celebrate. In fact, we've succeeded in solving so many of our problems that the problems facing us now seem so insurmountable because they are the most complicated and difficult ones. We've established the value of natural areas, and that it is our responsibility to protect them. The challenge facing us today is one of balance. As we move towards sustainable environmental practices, we have to balance the movement forward with the fact that some areas and industries in our country may have to adapt, or go away entirely.

Without a doubt these are very tricky questions. What to get rid of coal? Then what do we do about the communities in Appalachia, the Midwest, or the West that depend almost entirely upon that industry? Want to reestablish healthy ecosystems on Bureau of Land Management lands out West? How do you get ranchers and their hands on your side, instead of doing everything in their power to keep their cattle grazing on federal lands? Want to build a non-partisan conservation movement built around consensus? Does this mean that protected land should be open to ATVs, hunting, or even certain forms of natural resource extraction?

Environmentalism and protection of our nation's natural treasures shouldn't be an issue for one political party. Throughout our nation's history there have been strong proponents for conservation and preservation across the political spectrum. Sure, we may disagree about the role of government in these efforts, or how fast we act, but liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between should be able to find common ground.

These questions were the topic of discussion for my sister and I as we descended back towards the dam. It was here that I resolved to make it a mission of my life to work on solving at least some of these problems. Maybe we won't get there soon, or even in my lifetime. But the very idea that we can leave this country and this planet in a better place than where we found it is reason enough to work at it. I believe we can live in a country that is environmentally conscious AND economically prosperous. We just have to work hard, think creatively, and keep an open mind.

Our natural areas are a crucial refuge from our hectic, frustrating, and often confusing world. Whether it is a place like Yosemite National Park, or the nearby city park or county forest preserve, each has its own virtues and importance. They all deserve our support and protection. Nothing dollarable is ever safe, as the example of Hetch Hetchy shows. Even still, Hetch Hetchy is a beautiful place. But perhaps some day that dam can come down, and it can restore itself to its pristine grandeur.

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