Roughly four to five million visitors flock to Yosemite National Park each year, most of whom seek out the misty waterfalls and dramatic granite walls of Yosemite Valley. But how would those numbers change if the park boasted a second awe-inspiring valley? A recent report evaluates the economic benefits of restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley.
Hetch Hetchy, a glacially carved valley situated in the northern end of the park, was flooded and dammed in the early 1900s in order to serve as the primary drinking water source for parts of San Francisco and the Bay Area. Even before it was finished, the massive construction project had become a source of deep controversy between lawmakers and early environmentalists. “No holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man,” conservationist John Muir famously wrote about the project in 1912.
Today, the remote reservoir, open to limited activities including hiking and fishing, receives around 40,000 visitors each year. But a recent analysis by ECONorthwest, an economic consulting firm based in Portland, Ore., estimates that a restored Hetch Hetchy Valley, drained of its water and offering recreation options and infrastructure in the same vein as Yosemite Valley, could attract orders of magnitude more visitors.
“We’re talking about hundreds of thousands to a million or more annual visitors,” says Mark Buckley, an economist with ECONorthwest and the author of the report—and those visitors would presumably spend money in and around the park. “What we could expect then, depending on the range that we’re looking at for Hetch Hetchy Valley, is somewhere around $39 to $127 million in annual expenditures.”
Those estimates don’t even include more nebulous benefits like the value of conservation and an economic concept known as consumer surplus. “When we think about the total trip value, we can get up over potentially $10 billion in total over 50 years,” Buckley says.
Still, Buckley warns these estimates are preliminary, based on modeled scenarios and relying on data from similar restoration projects completed in other national parks. The report also does not estimate the costs of restoring the valley, nor does it propose alternative locations for the reservoir, which currently serves roughly 2.4 million people. “That would be a very important area for more research of course,” he says, including surveys of what visitors to Hetch Hetchy would actually want to see and do there.
The study was commissioned by Restore Hetch Hetchy, a non-profit organization advocating for the valley to be returned to its original condition.