In the environmental world, it’s characterized as the classic battle: Should wild areas be preserved for their intrinsic qualities or conserved for their resources? In other words, should nature be used for “the greatest good for the greatest number of people for the longest time,” as nineteenth-century progressive environmentalist Gifford Pinchot put it; or should the wilderness be protected and revered without human intrusions, a view espoused by romantic environmentalist John Muir?
Today, with a burgeoning population encroaching on our remaining wild areas and economic help scarce, many would say that Pinchot’s beliefs are more realistic for the modern world. In fact, there are even those, such as Peter Kareiva, The Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist, who would take Pinchot’s notion a step further: Natural areas must be managed to benefit humans, if they are to survive at all.
“These darn trees are in the way of my view of nature,” joked one of my guides on a trip to British Columbia a few years back. We had stopped during a hike on a forested esker and were trying to look through the woods to a lake far below. We couldn’t see it through the dense foliage. Of course, his comment made us all laugh. Little did we know then that such an absurd idea would years later — this fall, in fact — become a reality in Yosemite National Park.
Starting later this year, thousands of trees will be cut down in Yosemite to provide better views of the famous granite faces, such as El Capitán and Half Dome, and the breathtaking waterfalls, such as Bridalveil or Yosemite Falls, that ring the valley. But the sounds of lumberjacks and the sights of downed trees — felled only for the purpose of providing better photo ops — are somehow discomfiting in a national park, prompting some to ask, “Why must so many succumb to the saw?”
The Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park was once described by naturalist John Muir as, “A grand landscape garden, one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain mansions.”
But in 1913, the U.S. Congress authorized the city of San Francisco to construct a dam and reservoir on the Tuolumne River in Hetch Hetchy to ensure that San Francisco would have a dependable water supply. It is said that the act broke John Muir’s heart, and some have even suggested that this great sadness hastened his death in 1914. By 1923, the dam was completed and the valley was flooded under several hundred feet of water.
Today, the Hetch Hetchy Valley, like many of America’s natural landscapes, is at the center of a restoration debate. But is trying to turn back the clock on natural areas we altered long ago the best way to spend environmental funds, especially in these cash-strapped times? Or would working to protect those wild places we still have in their original state be a better use of scant resources?