I wrote this for my Environmental Science, Policy, and Management C12 class at Cal. It compares the Hetch Hetchy controversy in California circa 1910, and the Thirlmere project in England around 1870. (The battle over Thirlmere has not been noded and didn't recieve anything like the incredible volume of writing on Hetch Hetchy. Read the linked Science article for some background.) Both crises served as critical points for the nascent doctrine of preservation to differentiate itself from the influential philosophy of conservation.


“Man! nature must be sought and found In lonely pools, on verdant banks...” As James Kenneth Stephen wrote that, engineers prepared to bring Lake Thirlmere's wealth to the thirsty people of Manchester. Another wit might have said the same four decades later, as San Francisco pushed to annex Hetch Hetchy for its own, stirring an unprecedented protest against the excesses of industrialization. The perspectives in both these struggles come from the contemporary writers, who appealed to public judgment. Stephen's poem, “Poetic Lamentation: Insufficiency of Steam Locomotion, Lake District” appeals to the reader's sense of beauty to save the countryside from invasive railroad construction: “That heaven-kissing rocky cone, On whose steep side the railway king Shall set his smoky throne?” (Development of the Lake District was rather slow compared to Hetch Hetchy, which changed from a carefree valley to a storage tank immediately upon completion of the dam.) In another country, a generation later, Pinchot appealed to utilitarianism, “to take every part of the land and its resources and put it to the use in which it will serve the most people.” (Nash 171) Senators, Representatives, and the President repeated this mantra. This is really the same principle that the Thirlmere preservationists came up against: the claim that the thirst of the needy many in the city trumped the views of a wealthy few in the hills. (Ritvo 1511)

“Go, fight her on her chosen ground, Turn shapely Thirlmere into tanks: Pursue her to her last retreats...” continues Stephen. Such outrage ties Stephen to Muir, who famously ranted “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well as dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.” (Nash 168) Here, though, there is a schism between the two mens' approaches. Just listen to Muir's words: he rants about “temple destroyers” who forsake “the God of the Mountains” (Nash 130), derides his opponents as “Satan and Co.” (167), compares himself to Christ: “the money changers are in the temple...” (170). This guy wasn't passionate about nature; this guy was a fanatic, and he had a loyal following (granted, most of his allies were probably a shade less rabid.) Muir, as the de facto leader of the preservationists must have made for an emotional, highly charged movement, caught up in polarizing terms of Good and Evil. It wasn't the same in England. According to Ritvo, the handful of people standing up for the lake weren't neopagans, and didn't even argue on an ecological basis. Their main reason for trying to stop the dam was simple: they liked the lake the way it was. Poets just wanted a nice place to write; residents wanted a nice place to live.

“And if perchance a garden plot Is found among the London streets, Smoke, steam and spare it not.” The Romantic poet is hyperbolically pessimistic, but he's well aligned with the American preservationists who, forty years after the Thirlmere struggle, worried about the potential of development “to turn every tree and waterfall into dollars and cents,” as Lymann Abbot, the editor of Outlook magazine put it. (Nash 166) It seems that Stephen's hyperbole wasn't too extreme for the day, either – his fellows in the Thirlmere Defence Association worried that Thirlmere was a “vital link in a chain that connected the entire region” and protecting it “was essential to the preservation of the whole.” (Ritvo 1511) The apocalyptic visions of the environmentalists in both eras were too extreme: Hetch Hetchy submerged one valley, not all of them, and Thirlmere became less attractive, but the Lake District didn't turn to an uninhabitable wasteland. The opposition, for its part, worked its way into some rather odd positions about the effects of water projects. Cronies of the Manchester Company declared that burying surrounding hills underwater would somehow “enhance the natural beauties in that district” - which would increase tourism, but thanks to strict building controls, development would actually decrease! (Ritvo 1511) Coincidentally, those who supported damming the Tuolumne often made similarly astounding claims (backed up by hard, unbiased evidence, no doubt) which damaged the preservationist line of protecting the valley's beauty. Proponents insisted that they would beautify the park, planting “moss, vines, and trees”, ignoring the irreparable loss of wilderness in favor of a glorified picnic area. (Nash 140) (The claim that the reservoir would be more beautiful, of course, was obviously true, provided one prefers a tremendous, artificial lake to an untouched, dynamic valley.) In England and California, both sides adopted positions of inspired lunacy.

Today, the waterworks are there, and the fights are over, yet the competing ideologies expressed in early environmental fights remain. Really, what resource is tapped today without cries of a catastrophic slippery slope, counterclaims of overwhelming economic necessity, arguments about environmental impact, further allegations of corruption and evil, pandering and base character attacks, and eventual degradation into a brutal free-for-all? Thanks, John Muir, for showing us the enlightened path to protecting our planet!

Works Cited

Nash, Roderick Frazier. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001

Ritvo, Harriet. “Fighting for Thirlmere – The Roots of Environmentalism” Science. Vol. 300 (2003): 1510-1511. (Online at http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/300/5625/1510

Stephen, James Kenneth. “Poetic Lamentation: Insufficiency of Steam Locomotion, Lake District” The Penguin Book of Victorian Verse. Ed. Karlin, Daniel. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. p. 724