San Francisco should keep the promise of a Hetch Hetchy ferry

Op-Ed: San Francisco should keep the promise of a Hetch Hetchy ferry

With the only recreation trail from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir to northern Yosemite cut off by a rockfall (circled area), ferry service pledged in a 1912 report would restore backcountry access. Photo: National Park Service

It is time for San Francisco to make good on its century-old promise to improve access to the Hetch Hetchy area of Yosemite National Park. If the city fails to do so now, park visitors will be unable to explore some of Yosemite’s most spectacular backcountry in 2014.

On March 31, huge sheets of granite fell from the face of the cliff below Hetch Hetchy Dome, burying 400 feet of the trail along Hetch Hetchy Reservoir under 16,000 tons of rock. TheNational Park Service expects it will not be possible to clear the trail until August and has notified wilderness permit holders that they must change their plans.

The buried trail is the principal route for hikers to Tiltill Valley, Rancheria Falls and many stunningly beautiful points beyond. Of course, were it not for the presence of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, visitors could simply saunter across Hetch Hetchy Valley before ascending into the backcountry.

In 1912, when San Francisco lobbied Congress for permission to dam Yosemite National Park’s Hetch Hetchy Valley, it assured the nation that development of a reservoir would enhance, not inhibit, opportunities for recreation. In the “Freeman Report,”400-pages long, luxuriously bound in red leather and provided to each member of Congress, San Francisco presented visions of easy access to both sides of the reservoir, happy picnickers, and ferries to transport park visitors across the water. The report prominently promises “there is not the slightest probability that the public will be excluded, or restricted from reasonable enjoyment.”

The bountiful vision painted by the Freeman Report is a far cry from the limited opportunities available today at Hetch Hetchy. There is but a single principal trail. The Hetch Hetchy entrance to Yosemite opens late and closes early. Park rangers diligently record the license plate numbers of all who enter. Overnight visitors are limited to a small “backpackers’ camp.” And the only boat on the reservoir is reserved for water agency officials and their special guests.

Each year, millions descend upon the world famous Yosemite Valley – 15 miles to the south – described by John Muir as Hetch Hetchy’s “wonderfully exact counterpart.” But few venture to the more restricted Hetch Hetchy. And due to the rock fall and subsequent closure of its principal trail, opportunities for visitors at Hetch Hetchy in 2014 may be even more limited.

San Francisco can and should be a better steward. It is time for San Francisco, working closely with the National Park Service, to implement the ferry service envisioned in the Freeman Report, and to transport hikers across the reservoir.

Restore Hetch Hetchy looks forward to full replacement of the water supply functions that the reservoir now provides, so that the entire Hetch Hetchy Valley can be returned to Yosemite National Park. But in the meantime, while it enjoys the benefits of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, San Francisco should honor the commitments it made to Congress, Yosemite and the American people.

Spreck Rosekrans is executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy.