John Muir is alive and well
LEE STETSON brings his one-man how “Conversations with a Tramp” to the Sebastiani Theatre this Sunday.
When Gifford Pinchot, soon to be John Muir’s former friend, said he believed that flooding the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park was the “highest possible use” for the land, Muir responded with one of his most famous phrases.
“Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the hearts of man.”
Pinchot was the first head of the U.S. Forest Service and John Muir was, well … John Muir.
The Hetch Hetchy disagreement cemented a breech in the relationship of two men pivotal in American environmental history. That breech, and the dam that stands behind it, continues to this day.
But Muir, whose body passed in 1914, appears to be alive and well in spirit, at least as channeled by Lee Stetson, the actor, historian and author whose living history/interpretive stage productions have been showcased in Yosemite Valley for more than 20 years.
Stetson may be closer to John Muir than anyone alive and his one-man show, “Conversations with a Tramp,” may be the best single introduction to Muir that anyone can have. Stetson will bring Muir to Sonoma on Sunday, Sept. 23, in a benefit performance for Restore Hetch Hetchy, an organization campaigning for the removal of the O’Shaughnessy Dam, the concrete plug that was installed in the west end of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in 1923 to provide San Francisco with a source of reliable drinking water.
Since then, additional dams have been built downstream and some analysts insist that removing the dam – part of what is now a nine-reservoir system – would not reduce San Francisco’s water supply by as much as a Sierra cup. Others insist the loss of storage capacity would be significant.
Hetch Hetchy is a glacial valley, a miniature of Yosemite Valley, that channels the wild Tuolumne River down the western flank of the Sierra Nevada through a canyon of breathtaking beauty, sculpted from granite walls.
It was a free-run river before the dam was built, and it ran through a valley Muir compared to a cathedral without a roof.
He fought the dam bitterly and it took Congressional passage of the Raker Act to permit construction inside a national park. The dam was approved in 1913 and a year later Muir died, some said from a broken heart and shattered spirit.
Anyone who has been to Hetch Hetchy, or hiked the Poopenaut Valley below the dam, immediately understands the dimensions of the conflict. The valley is a natural bathtub, a perfect place to store the clear, silt-free glacial melt from the Sierra peaks. It is also one of the most stunning natural formations in the West and a place that generations have mourned losing. Some have not given up Muir’s fight and, if you listen to Sonoma’s Mark Cederborg, victory is closer than most people think.
Cederborg is a Sonoma Valley High School graduate and a project manager for Hanford ARC, a Sonoma company specializing in environmental restoration of streams, wetlands and species habitat.
He’s also vice-chair of Restore Hetch Hetchy and, he says, getting rid of the dam “is totally doable.”
What’s needed, he says, is an objective, science-based analysis of the costs and consequences of taking down the dam and letting the Tuolumne run free down to Don Pedro Reservoir, where it’s second impoundment could make the O’Shaughnessy Dam redundant.
That study won’t happen without the cooperation and support of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which controls the Hetch Hetchy system and is loathe to approve such a study, perhaps, critics claim, because it fears losing the lucrative hydropower revenues it gets from the falling river.
But a ballot measure, Proposition F, that has qualified for the November election asks San Francisco voters to approve a mandate requiring San Francisco to spend $8 million to develop a new water plan independent of Hetch Hetchy, that would be submitted to city voters for approval in 2016.
Virtually all San Francisco leaders oppose the measure and Mayor Ed Lee has called it “insane.”
But Cederborg insists that not only can the plan work, it needs to be done for generations to come.
“I have two little kids. This isn’t just about this one valley in the Sierra. The idea that we can, on a large scale, redirect and get creative in our use of natural resources would impact the world.”
Hearing the Hetch Hetchy story from the mouth of Muir himself may sound equally impossible, but an opportunity for a close facsimile will be offered at the Sebastiani Theatre, at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 23. Tickets for Lee Stetson’s “Conversations with a Tramp” are available at Readers’ Books, the Sebastiani Theatre or online at hetchhetchy.org.