Jeffrey Hyson, Ph. D.

portrait of scholarSaint Joseph’s University 

Term: Spring 2024


The Hetch Hetchy debate stands as a familiar landmark in American environmental history, a classic conflict between conservation and preservation. During the early 1900s, city leaders in San Francisco were seeking a more reliable, publicly-owned water supply. They petitioned the federal government for permission to build a dam and reservoir in the Hetch Hetchy Valley of Yosemite National Park. Supporters of San Francisco’s proposal — including Forest Service director Gifford Pinchot — argued that transforming the valley into a reservoir for millions of future Bay Area residents represented an appropriately Progressive use of natural resources, providing the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time. Opponents of the project — like Pinchot’s one-time mentor, John Muir of the Sierra Club — insisted that Hetch Hetchy’s value lay in its natural beauty, not in its potential utilitarian function, and they warned that such exploitation of a national park would set a dangerous precedent for protecting those wild landscapes that belonged to all Americans.

Over more than a decade, conservationists and preservationists battled over the fate of Hetch Hetchy. They lobbied federal authorities, testified before congressional committees, and promoted their causes in the popular press. They debated the purposes of parks, the meanings of the “public interest,” and the relative values of use and beauty. For a few years, Hetch Hetchy became a national cause célèbre, and Americans flooded Washington with letters, telegrams, and petitions on both sides of the argument. In the end, though, Congress approved San Francisco’s request in 1913. While preservationists did manage to extract some long-term benefit from their defeat in the form of a new National Park Service, conservationists prevailed in the valley itself, where the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir still stands as a crucial source of water and power for the Bay Area.

The Hetch Hetchy controversy produced a wealth of primary sources and has provoked extensive scholarly research. My project builds on this literature by creating a classroom exercise in which students will immerse themselves in the context, ideas, and personalities of this seminal debate. Developed as part of the Reacting to the Past pedagogy, Conservation, Preservation, and the Value of Nature: The Hetch Hetchy Controversy, 1913 takes the form of an extended role-playing game, in which students will re-create a hearing of the Senate Committee on Public Lands. Some students will serve as witnesses, both conservationist (California politicians, federal officials, civil engineers) and preservationist (Sierra Club directors, magazine editors, nature-club members). Others will play the roles of Senators, journalists, and other interested parties. Throughout the game, students will speak and write “in character,” as they not only examine the core issues surrounding Hetch Hetchy but also develop valuable skills in communication, research, analysis, and teamwork.

During my residency at Grey Towers, I researched, outlined, and began writing the major components of the Hetch Hetchy game manuscript. These elements include a lengthy historical background essay; an edited collection of primary sources; detailed role descriptions for over 25 characters; and explanatory materials about the game’s structure for both students and instructors. As I build on the momentum of my productive time at Grey Towers, I am confident that this project will make a valuable addition to both environmental history and active-learning pedagogy, helping students and faculty to engage more critically and empathetically with debates over conservation and preservation—past, present, and future.



"Spending two weeks at Grey Towers provided exactly the intellectual stimulation I needed to move my project forward. Forest Service staff shared useful sources and thoughtful comments that greatly enriched my work, while also furnishing practical support through convenient housing and the grandest office I’ll ever have."

"My 'commute' up the hill to the mansion, walking through the beautifully maintained grounds, offered a daily reminder that Gifford Pinchot’s legacy lives on not just in books and laws but in the landscape itself. Conveniently, my residency also coincided with the annual meeting of the Grey Towers Heritage Association, whose members’ generosity enabled and enhanced my residency; they also facilitated valuable contacts with local high schools, where I hope to try out the Hetch Hetchy game in the future."

"Finally, I really enjoyed getting to know the town of Milford, whose restaurants, shops, history, and scenery offered something different to explore every day of my stay."