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How a Dam Paved the Way for the National Park Service

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The following is a guest post by Deanna Fanelli, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is an international development studies student at UCLA

Have you ever wondered how the National Park Service (NPS) came to be?

Many credit public support for establishing the NPS to the Hetch Hetchy Controversy. This controversy was a multi-year debate that saw the public divided over whether to build a dam in the Hetch Hetchy valley to create a water supply for San Francisco, California. Since the Hetch Hetchy valley lay within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park, the final decision was left to Congress, which deliberated the issue between 1908 and 1913.

The divide over Hetch Hetchy’s fate took center stage during a hearing before the Committee on Public Lands in the House of Representatives in December 1908. The hearing included statements and letters from government officials, conservation organizations, the San Francisco city engineer, writers, and conservationists. Both sides of the controversy were represented, with some arguing in favor of using Hetch Hetchy valley as a water source and others arguing to preserve the valley’s natural beauty. James Garfield, the Secretary of the Interior, noted that citizens opposed the dam “not only in California, but throughout the country,” reflecting how this debate had become the subject of national attention.

A black and white landscape view of grass in hte foreground and mountains in the background.
Hetch – Hetchy Valley, Sierra Nevada Mts., Calif. Wolfskill, Matt Asby. c. 1911. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

The public continued to debate the proposed Hetch Hetchy project for the next several years. In 1909, many conservation writers showed opposition to a bill that would allow a dam to be built in Hetch Hetchy Valley, with Isaac Branson writing that “San Francisco has no urgent or even reasonable need at all of this Hetch-Hetchy region for her Water Supply,” and John Muir urging the public to “ask Congress to reject this destructive bill.” On the other hand, the Hypatia Women’s Club of San Francisco, the Executive Board of the San Francisco District of the California Women’s Clubs, the Central Labor Union of Maine, and the San Francisco Examiner all published documents expressing support for the creation of a dam.

Public debate over Hetch Hetchy’s fate came to a head in 1913 when the House of Representatives and Senate voted on the Raker bill (ch. 4, 38 Stat. 242), which would officially grant San Francisco the right to create a dam in the valley. On September 3, 1913, the bill formally passed in the House of Representatives, with 183 “yeas,” 43 “nays,” 9 “present,” and 194 not voting. Three months later, the Raker bill passed the Senate on December 6, 1913, with 43 “yeas” and 25 “nays.” President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill into law on December 19, 1913, marking an end to the years-long controversy.

A black and white newspaper "the Call" with the heading "City Wins Hetch Hetchy Fight"
The San Francisco call. Sept. 3, 1913. Library of Congress.

The effort to preserve lands did not halt with the passage of the Raker bill but instead gained momentum. Public disapproval of the Raker Act ultimately led to Congress passing an Act to establish a National Park Service (ch. 408, 38 Stat. 535). The National Park Service was to

…promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations… by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monument, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

This act was passed in 1916, only three years after the Hetch Hetchy controversy came to a close.

With the passage of this act, national parks would be managed and protected more cohesively at the federal level. To learn more about national parks, see our other blog post articles!

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  1. About those 194 representatives that didn’t vote in 1913 — Is that a record?

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