Sunday, February 9, 2014

Day hikes into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne?

Yesterday’s Water Law Symposium at UC Hastings in San Francisco included a session titled “The Hetch Hetchy Controversy”. The session included good questions and a few strong opinions on both sides from the audience, as well as some of the usual repartee between Restore Hetch Hetchy and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC).

One young man asked whether we wanted to create “another Yosemite Valley”. By the way he asked the question, he was asking if we envisioned a restoration plan with the infrastructure, crowds and traffic jams that can be overwhelming in Yosemite Valley.

I responded that Restore Hetch Hetchy does not have a definitive plan for how the valley should be managed once it is restored – that is something for the public and National Park Service to work out. I pointed out, however, that the Park Service has allowed little development in Denali, a more recently established national park.

I did say that I could imagine a Hetch Hetchy Valley that did not allow the private automobile, but which included an efficient shuttle system (light rail, bus, or tram) that would transport visitors to the upper end of the valley. I explained that such a shuttle system would allow day hikes into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne – a spectacular area that lies upstream of the current reservoir. Presently the only way to see the Tuolumne’s “Grand Canyon” is to do a multi-day backpack trip.

The SFPUC representative opined that allowing day use of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne would ruin it. (He further opined that the reservoir is protecting the valley – something we have heard before.)

What do supporters of restoration think about how the Park Service should manage a restored valley? How should people get to the upstream end of the valley? Should there be roads? If so, what about the private automobile? How about paved paths for bicycles and wheelchairs?

And should a restored valley include campgrounds or other lodging? Where should these be?

If Yosemite Valley accommodates 4,000,000 people a year, what is the right vision for Hetch Hetchy Valley? Bear in mind that both are about nine miles long but Yosemite Valley is wider.

How do we restore a valley so it can be loved but not loved to death?

Please share any thought you have on these matters below. Right now the discussion is just for fun. It will be more serious, and more exciting, once plans to remove the reservoir are in place.


  1. HH Valley is am amazing opportunity for the Park Service to get it right. Roads dedicated to shuttles and cyclists can have a place, as well as day hikers in the canyon. We've learned a lot about how to manage popular natural spaces since Yosemite Valley started getting developed. As for the SFPUC rep, those people can say some pretty insane things when allowed to speak off-the-cuff.

    1. Regardless of any inane (not insane) comment by anyone, we are better served in all we do in this most difficult task of 21st century rehabilitation, to respond with humility and respect. At some point soon we will be sitting down at the table with people of vastly different backgrounds and perspectives to seek a solution. If we expect people to "hear" our perspective, we surely must expect to listen and hear theirs. For a very long time, many folks from the SFPUC have felt a profound sense of stewardship over Hetch Hetchy. Let us build upon that.

      Thank You Spreck for elevating the conversation...

    2. Bruce, you are right that many at the SFPUC do feel a profound sense of stewardship of the Tuolumne watershed and Hetch Hetchy area. And we should all honor and respect the folks that provide us water and power. There are also SFPUC staff who support restoration though they are discreet about it. As I see it, they will continue to have a key role in watershed management during and after restoration.

    3. Interesting to know. And after a brief but illuminating interlude, back to your original prompt Spreck. Although perhaps inordinately premature, and as previously noted with a multitude of disparate players at the table, conjecture on the incredible opportunity for restoration done right is quite intoxicating. Being only sixty I tell nearly everyone I know I intend to walk in Hetch Hetchy Valley along the Tuolumne River in my lifetime (I of course say the same thing for traversing Glen Canyon by canoe or kayak). I would posit no private automobiles should be down there, with bus or train public transit, a minimum of developed campgrounds and visitor amenities, and without question day and multi-day user permits into the Grand Canyon and beyond.

  2. The notion that the SFPUC serves indirectly as Yosemite's guardian, protecting the rarely traversed Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne from public overuse - by effectively denying day hike access into the canyon because of the reservoir's obstruction- is rich with irony.
    The SFPUC's prime concern, of course, is protecting the ill-sited Hetch Hetchy reservoir from public recreation pollution or worse, intentional harm, which is readily understandable. When one discovers that all the NPS rangers that roam the Tuolumne River watershed surrounding the reservoir are armed law enforcement officers, the question of what they are protecting, and why, has an answer that is as clear as the ice blue water of Tuolumne River.