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Water and Land Use Battles



Hetch Hetchy The turn of the 20th century saw California come to a realization that the resources that had drawn its population there needed to be managed with intention. The days of stripping hillside bare in hydraulic mining operations, and leveling forests flat to build towns down in the valleys, were no longer able to operate with out public opposing attention.

In every battle there were always several sides to the issue in the wars over water and land use. The Camp will be providing you with historical accounts of what took place at the time, and also challenging you to join us for a live debate on the same topics today.

  • Mountain Mining vs. Valley Farming Water War of the 1860s

  • Railroad Land Grabs

  • The Yosemite Debate

  • The Wilderness vs. the City - the Hetch Hetchy Battle

  • The Hetch Hetchy Debate



  • Mountain Mining vs. Valley Farming Water War of the 1860s

    One of the first land and water use battles in the State took place in the 1860s during the rapid increase of hydraulic mining. Miners in the mountains, no longer to enjoy the easy gold findings of the 1850s, were installing forceful water mining systems (hydraulic) that tore the face of the mountains in the search for gold. With the trees stripped off these mountains, the soil quickly washed down into the rivers and muddied them, ruining the fishing, and destroying the animal habitats that relied on these rivers. Then, when the rains came, they rain came down with such force from these scarred hillsides that the rivers rose faster and higher than ever before, flooding entire towns in spite of their efforts to build dams and levies. The Valley residents protested and tried to take their case to court, wanting to hold the miners responsible for the damage their mountain operations were causing in the valleys below. But the short-sighted courts settled in favor of the wealthy miners, not recognizing the responsibility of the cause and effect their operations put into motion.

    Railroad Land Grabs

    Another prominent battle of the early 1900s was the land battles over the railroads that were taking a checkerboard of land as their claimed domain where ever they laid their lines. These private companies, with government approval to promote development, robbed private land owners of their property with no say in the matter, and also impacted on Indian Reservations by cutting in half the lands reserved in the railroad construction areas.

    The Yosemite Debate

    Yosemite is one of our nation's most valued national parks. However, Yosemite's significance has not always been appreciated. Prior to 1890, only a small segment of today's 1,200-square-mile park was protected by government, and, prior to 1864, none of it was protected by law. The dominant mind-set of the time was utilitarian: if it's there, use it. In other words, land served an economic purpose and was meant to be used for mining, agriculture, logging, or grazing livestock. Economic limitations often prevented the preservation of beautiful places. Fortunately, there were people who sought to improve America's cultural recognition in the world through enjoying its natural wonders. There was also a vocal group of conservationists and thinkers such as John Muir who passionately believed in the importance of protecting natural areas. Through Muir's writing and lectures, many Americans became aware of the grandeur of Yosemite. By camping with President Theodore Roosevelt in Yosemite, Muir persuaded the president to create the national park system and preserve America's natural treasures. To study up on your role in this debate, we will refer to the Sierra Club's John Muir Study Guide. Click here to read the ROLES students can take on during the debate. Then have students answer the following questions from the view point of the person they represent in the debate.

    This debate allows you to enter John Muir's world of 1890. Through researching and role-playing the battle to protect Yosemite as a national park, you may gain an understanding of our nation's early voices debating the value of setting aside vast tracts of land as parks. Furthermore, you may gain insight into many of today's environmental arguments and understand the many factors affecting any land use decision.

    Students will make better progress in the debate if they write down some initial ideas in advance of the debate. Develop each statement more clearly as you do your research. As you prepare for and simulate the debate, keep in mind the different ways of valuing the environment. Ask yourself which ways your character values the environment and how those values affect the course of the debate.

    1. My Role:
    2. My Beliefs in this Role:
    3. Ways I Value the Environment in this Role:
    4. My Argument in this Role:
    5. My Own Beliefs on the Debate:
    6. The Ways I Value the Environment in My Own Life:
    7. How Do I Agree or Disagree with the Beliefs and Views of the Role I Played in the Debate?


    The Camp will be hosting debates for your students to interact online. Please write to camp@rain.org to make a classroom debate reservation, or join a pre-announced debate session where your classroom may be asked to represent one view point, while other classrooms represent the other view points.

    The Wilderness vs. the City - the Hetch Hetchy Battle

    To get background on the people who became the environmental protection pioneers of the early 1900s, visit the Camp resources under Turn of the Century, with attention to the Adventurers Club and the Sierra Club. Many of these same people were involved in the first major environmental battle of California - the fight to build / or stop the building of the Hetch Hetchy Resevoir that would shut off an entire valley adjacent to Yosemite in the Sierra Nevada. San Francisco developers wanted the water that the Hetch Hetchy could provide, even though there were other alternatives. Environmentalists, scientists, and outdoorsmen fought bitterly in opposition, taking their case all the way to Congress. The project was approved and built, and still supplies water to San Francisco today. But it was the battle that raised environmental consciousness as a national concern, and the backlash was close public scrutiny of all future projects that might impact of natural treasures held in common by the people of the United States.

    Camp Internet thanks the Sierra Clubs valuable web site for providing access to these resources.

  • The Hetch Hetchy as an example of the 20th Cnetury wilderness/city challenge


  • 1) The Hetch Hetchy Valley by John Muir 1873

    2) The Hetch Hetchy Valley by John Muir 1908

    3) Muir Testifies to Congress to Save the Hetch Hetchy

    4) Robert Underwood Johnson Addresses Congress

    5) The Sierra Clubs Brief Comments to Congress

    6) Phelan and Developers Positions

    7) Hetch Hetchy Timeline

    8) The Ghosts of Hetch Hetchy

    9) Hetch Hetchy Backlash

    10) The Struggles Continue

    11) The 21st Century Hetch Hetchy Restoration Challenge

    Hetch Hetchy Debate



    In our online debate series, we will also be hosting Hetch Hetchy debates. Students will decide if they want to respond to questions in the debate from the developers view point (Phelan), the environmentalists view point (Muir), or the Congressional view point as the law makers deciding the fate of this wilderness area. Study the historical materials above to understand the differing viewpoints. Questions to prepare answers to in advance, from a 1908 viewpoint, are :

    1. Why does San Francisco need more water ?
    2. Does San Francisco have other options for water ?
    3. Should cities be built where water is or should water be brought to the cities ?
    4. With San Francisco's history of tragic fires, and the recent devastation of the 1906 earthquake and fire, is water also a safety issue?
    5. Is nature present to serve man even at its own destruction ?
    6. Does a city have the right to put the needs of its people above the needs of the wilderness ( plants, animals, mountains and rivers ) ?
    7. Is the savings of money to bring people needed water worth the destruction of irreplaceable natural beauty ?
    8. If our national parks are not safe from major construction projects, how will they be kept
    intact for future generations as was the intention with their founding ?


    Please write to camp@campinternet.net to make a classroom debate reservation, or join a pre-announced debate session where your classroom may be asked to represent one view point, while other classrooms represent the other view points.