President Obama and his family are visiting Yosemite National Park later this week.
Even though it is likely to be just a whirlwind tour of the world-famous glacier carved Yosemite Valley, the odds are the President will be impressed just as 4 million visitors are each year.
It’s a shame Obama can’t have the luxury of one of his predecessors — Republican Theodore Roosevelt — and spend three days in the iconic park with minimal crowds as the 26th president did with Sierra Club founder John Muir.
I’m not exactly sure what Muir — if he was alive today — would think of Yosemite National Park that President Lincoln took time during the Civil War to protect 152 years ago this month. I’d venture he’d be happy and dismayed at the same time about the overwhelming crowds that flock to Yosemite. He wanted Yosemite preserved for future generations and it is clear those “future generations” are taking advantage of Yosemite being saved.
Muir would most likely bend Obama’s ear on what he believed was the massively flawed decision by the federal government to flood Hetch Hetchy — a stretch along the Tuolumne River that Muir said rivaled Yosemite Valley for grandeur and beauty — all for the benefit of the City of San Francisco.
The Raker Act of 1913 was the first time — and hopefully the last — that Congress, acting in conjunction with Democrat President Woodrow Wilson , allowed a dam to be built to flood a national park.
What’s done is done. And while the federal government has struck deals to tear down existing dams — the latest being in Oregon where farmers lost water storage in the process— the moneyed people of San Francisco’s liberal political establishment won’t let that happen to O’Shaughnessy Dam even if were replaced with increased storage at Don Pedro Reservoir farther downstream.
Ironically — or not — the last federal administration to suggest restoring Hetch Hetchy was when a Republican by the name of Ronald Reagan was in office. Many in San Francisco argued the suggestion floated by Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel was simply a ploy to irritate The City’s liberals. The Sierra Club didn’t see it as such and stepped up pressure in the campaign to remove Hetch Hetchy.
The reason may have a lot to do with Reagan’s real environmental record as governor. Despite the fallout from taking his comment, “you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all” out of context, it was Reagan who as governor killed the last State Water Project dam that would have flooded Round Valley and changed the direction of the Eel River to fuel south state growth and expand corporate farms in the southern San Joaquin Valley.
Obama has irked people coast-to-coast with his effort to extend federal protection of this nation’s nature treasures.
And while I’d like to think Obama would have an open mind to start federal discussions about reversing a horrible decision that laid ruin to Hetch Hetchy Valley, it’s probably a non-starter politically given the frequency of the Democratic Party mining wealthy liberals’ pockets in San Francisco as well as the Silicon Valley. Both either use water or electricity from the desecration of Hetch Hetchy Valley.
That said Obama can right one hideous wrong and set in motion an effort to protect the rest of Yosemite National Park for future generations.
The City of San Francisco is paying annually exactly what it did when O’Shaughnessy Dam was completed in 1923 for “renting” parkland to store water — $30,000.
To put that in perspective, you can’t even rent a decent one bedroom apartment in San Francisco for a year for $30,000 let alone four square miles of prime real estate The City inundated with water.
An effort in 2004 by the Republican administration of President George W. Bush to bring the annual charge for using the park service land for storing San Francisco’s water up to current dollars was rebuffed by Democrats in Congress led by Senator Diane Feinstein.
The annual amount Bush was seeking was $8 million.
Obama could right one wrong with an executive order — assuming he can legally do so — to bring the payment for Hetch Hetchy up to current market value which is probably closer to $10 million in today’s dollars.
Then he can restrict that money to one purpose — helping restore and protect the rest of Yosemite National Park. It could finance the goal of putting in place a system of parking lots outside Yosemite perhaps as far away at the Highway 99 corridor in Fresno, Merced and Manteca where the three highways that access Yosemite pass through. At the same time a fleet of clean burning buses could be pressed into service.
That would mean anyone who wanted to visit Yosemite Valley proper would have to do so by traveling there in a bus and not a private vehicle.
While it may not appease Hetch Hetchy purists, there is justice in the loss of such a grand place for future generations making it possible that the rest of Yosemite National Park to be better protected.
That would provide President Obama with a national park legacy on par with Lincoln and Roosevelt.