Reinventing California

Long ago seen as America's frontier, California has had two cases this year in which to face a question of reshaping its landscape.

The latest case involves a Dec. 31 deadline for southern California's largest water districts to reduce their water usage by shifting flows from the large farms in the Imperial Valley to the booming metropolis of San Diego. (See story.)

The other was a $1.6 billion bond question on San Francisco's Nov. 5 ballot that called for upgrading the pipes and tunnels that bring in water from the Hetch Hetchy Valley, part of Yosemite National Park. Before a 312-foot dam flooded the 3-mile-long valley in the early 20th century, it was, as John Muir called it, Yosemite's "wonderfully exact counterpart."

Before the vote, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups tried to persuade the ecoconscious voters of San Francisco to instead study the alternative of finding other water sources and "restore" the valley.

In both these cases, Californians have been asked to reinvent their state by shifting priorities. Of the two, Hetch Hetchy is the most telling: San Francisco chose to keep its hold on its prime water source, rejecting the idea of returning the valley to a "natural state."

In other words, "wilderness" lost.

Deflooding Hetch Hetchy would return it to an imagined natural state. The problem is that no one really knows what Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy looked like before human habitation. Both have been altered for centuries, first by local Indians, then by pioneer settlers, and then as the first national park set by Congress.

For landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the Indians (which he called "savages") had to be evicted from the park. He did not think they were capable of a civilized view of beauty. Otherwise, they would not have burned the underbrush and made other marks on the land. He didn't realize the beauty and openness he and others so admired were in large part a result of Indian customs and culture. The Olmsted legacy of cleansing Yosemite of human communities and structures continued into the 1960s, when the last residences of an old village were demolished.

The idea of creating an idealized and largely unauthentic version of this portion of Yosemite is driven by a desire to save certain plants and animals, as well as provide a regenerative experience for American tourists.

Californians need to ask: What is the environmental base line for making such decisions? How much can society mold landscape in its image without violating laws of nature?

When one Native American, Totuya, who was evicted from Yosemite in 1851, returned to it in 1929, she shook her head and remarked on its neglect. "Too dirty, too much bushy," she said.

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