Friday, October 2, 2009

Ken Burns National Parks PBS series and the effort to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley

I've been watching the Ken Burns PBS television series on the national parks, and I am transported through time and space to Yosemite where I've been going since I was very young.

I am old enough to remember the fire fall. As an adult, I've camped on the Valley floor and hiked in the high country, caught trout in Tuolumne Meadows, and stood in the spray of water falls. I've slept under Yosemite skies so clear I could practically touch the Milky Way.

Yet this television series is not an exercise in sentimentality. I am very grateful that Ken Burns highlighted the travesty of a dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley, built in the early 20th century. John Muir called Hetch Hetchy "Little Yosemite," a glacially carved canyon that San Francisco entombed behind a dam for its water supply. It is hard to believe now that a dam could be built in a national park, but it was.

And the dam is still there.

What is even more hard to believe is the
opposition to removing the dam from San Francisco's supposedly green-leaning political leaders, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a former mayor, and former mayor Willie Brown. They've opposed even studying whether San Francisco could obtain water from downstream on the Tuolumne River. They are apparently afraid to know the answer.

Our generation has the opportunity to set right this crime against the earth. John Muir saw the dam as an affront against God. "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 heart of man." Muir once wrote.

There is an organization that has worked tirelessly for years to remove the dam and restore Hetch Hetchy. It is worthy of your support. You can find more information on Restore Hetch Hetchy by clicking HERE. We've been involved with this organization for many years, and it has new and inspired leadership with Mike Marshall.

Awhile back I wrote an opinion piece for the San Francisco Examiner, aimed at the religious community, on this topic. Here it is again:

Why the religious community should care about Hetch Hetchy

By: The Rev. James Richardson Special to The Examiner | 5/8/09 4:14 PM

With the dire threat of climate change and with one-third of the planet’s population lacking safe drinking water, it’s a reasonable question to ask: Why care about a relatively small mountain valley in California?

For those of us in the religious community, it’s especially fair to ask that question given our seemingly stretched resources and the priority extended to alleviating the suffering of the poor. Would we not be better served to spend our resources elsewhere and on some other cause than the effort to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley?

Let me suggest looking at this differently, and I am speaking primarily to my brothers and sisters in the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and other religious communities. It’s a central tenet of faith common to all of our religions that God provides. And God does not provide meagerly, but provides abundantly. God gives us all that we need to heal the sick, bind the wounds of the injured and to care for this planet, our island home.

Restoring Hetch Hetchy would be a spectacular declaration that we believe in God’s abundance, that we take seriously our calling to be faithful stewards of all God gives us. If we have just enough faith to restore one wounded valley, we can move other mountains — we can reverse global warming, we can clean the watersheds and bring safe water and food to every corner of the Earth. God provides everything we need to fully heal our planet. Do we really believe that?

As pressing as large-scale issues like global warming are, we ignore at our peril the smaller-scale issues of environmental restoration. It would be doubly tragic to fail in our efforts at the large issues while also failing to restore the jewels of our planet, like Hetch Hetchy. I believe God calls us to do both.

Restoring Hetch Hetchy also is about how human beings touch the sacred. We are not the first generation to experience God in the wilderness. The ancient Celts called the mountains and river valleys “thin places,” and Yosemite is certainly one of those amazing thin places.

John Muir’s Celtic spiritual roots were on full display when he fought San Francisco’s proposal to dam Hetch Hetchy Valley. For the great naturalist, damming the valley was not only an attack on nature, but an attack on God.

“These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar,” Muir wrote in 1912. “As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”

The Rev. James Richardson is an Episcopal priest and the former Chaplain of the California state Senate.

Photos show Hetch Hetchy Valley before the dam, and now.

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