National Geographic : 1976 Jul
By early autumn I am in California-on a backcountry trail in Yosemite National Park, where the granite face of Hetch Hetchy Dome rises 2,300 feet in the High Sierra. Over in Yosemite Valley, below El Capitan and Half Conservation or preservation: Did John Muir thunder in vain? Dome, campgrounds and lodges bustle, and conventioneers throng the Ahwahnee Hotel. But here it's quiet. A rattlesnake relaxes in the afternoon sun. A nationwide con troversy focused right here early in this cen- tury: Should San Francisco, 150 miles away, be allowed to dam the Tuolumne River and turn the Hetch Hetchy Valley into a reservoir for water and power? Certainly, said Gifford Pinchot for the con servationists. Nature must be managed sci entifically, to supply our practical needs; to say otherwise would be sentimentalism. John Muir, for the preservationists, said never! Nature should be left untouched by commercialism, to refresh the human spirit! Muir expressed ideas whose time had come. The wild frontier was gone for good, the cities were growing more crowded; to many, the wilderness began to look idyllically attractive. But after years of wrangling, Congress voted for the dam in 1913. So here's Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, now 300 feet deep. Did John Muir thunder in vain? The place looks refreshingly wild to me; apparently to quite a few others too: Chunky imprints of Vibram soles are as plentiful on the trail as cow pies on the Wyoming range. I sit and savor the solitude. A dry leaf coasts by, scratching across granite. Here comes a backpacking couple. I forgot my copy of Muir's Yosemite book, so they give me theirs. They say they're from Los Angeles, having a great wilderness experience. And later, in San Francisco, I find that the Sierra Club, which Muir founded, is prosper ing. Membership's above 150,000; they're moving to larger quarters. Here in California I'm struck by the gall of its 19th-century land-grabbers. Like Henry Miller, a butcher from Germany who wound up with more than a million acres. Here's how he got a lot of dry grassland in the San Joaquin Valley, thanks to the Swamp Lands Act of 1850: It enabled land under water to be ac quired cheap by anyone who would drain it. To claim his land, Miller swore he'd crossed itinaboat,and sohehad.Inadinghyona wagon pulled by horses. Much dry California soil became fine farm land, thanks to the Reclamation Act of 1902. That act set up the U. S. Reclamation Ser vice, now the Bureau of Reclamation, to build dams and irrigation systems in the 17 semiarid Western States, to encourage set tlement by supplying small family farms with inexpensive water. The bureau's achieve ments are stupendous. I've seen Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, regulating and storing Colorado River water, and the All American Canal, carrying it to California's Imperial Valley, a former desert now dishing up a bonanza in carrots, melons, lettuce, tomatoes. True, the benefits sometimes flow to big corporations whose main business is in other fields. For them, big farming can be an im portant tax shelter. It's often said that in to day's agriculture only a big farm can efficient ly produce food at reasonable prices. It all depends on whom you ask.