God, Geology, and the Grand Canyon
Talk about a story that will make a reporter drool.
Allegations from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility about what Park Service rangers can and can't say about the geologic age of the Grand Canyon arrived like a late Christmas present during the notoriously news-dead week between Christmas and New Year's.
"How Old is the Grand Canyon? Park Service Won't Say," crowed the headline pasted atop the group's press release that was distributed Dec. 28. If that wasn't enough to attract attention, the sub-head would: "Orders to Cater to Creationists Make National Park Service Agnostic on Geology."
Then, to truly set the hook, the first sentence of PEER's release stated that: "Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature due to pressure from Bush administration appointees."
This would be like shooting fish in a barrel to any reporter who likes to skewer the current administration. I was already rearranging my day to plunge into this baby.
But then a funny thing happened: I couldn't immediately confirm the gist of the release to my satisfaction. A few days later I stumbled across an even worse conclusion: It wasn't true.
But, as the saying goes, don't let the facts get in the way of a good story. A few sadly took that approach as some in the blogosphere and some news outlets had a field day with this gem.
"Sadly," I say, because this story begged for independent verification even though PEER normally is a very reliable group, fighting the good fight for our public lands. I've run with many of their releases in the past.
But this one was a veritable keg of dynamite, mixing religion with parks and politics. So I emailed David Barna, chief of communications for the Park Service. He was so eager to respond to the allegation that he immediately phoned me to say the release was hogwash.
Grand Canyon rangers, he told me, continue to focus on the geologic story behind the canyon, not the view held by religious fundamentalists that "Noah's flood" created the chasm and that it couldn't be older than 6,000 years or so.
"Restrictions about what they can say just is not true," Barna told me. "It's in our Management Policies, that we teach the scientific method."
I then called Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director. He stood by the release and dismissed Barna's comments, saying the NPS spokesman was simply blocking the truth. When I asked him who among the park personnel at the Grand Canyon could verify that they were muzzled from telling the canyon's geologic story, he demurred, not wishing to reveal the source.
I tried last week to reach Maureen Oltrogge, Grand Canyon's public information officer, but she was on vacation. Next I tried Pete Hart, the park's acting assistant superintendent, but he too was out of the office. With Monday and Tuesday being federal holidays, I anguished as other blogs ran with the story.
Today that wait was vindicated, as word came from Hart that PEER's allegations -- that "Park employees are not allowed to reveal the true age of the formation for fear of offending Christians," that "In order to avoid offending religious fundamentalists, our National Park Service is under orders to suspend its belief in geology," and "Employees of the park are not permitted to give an official estimate of the canyon's geological age, and are instead required to reply with 'no comment' if posed with the question" -- are totally false.
Now, one piece of PEER's release that comes pretty close to standing up is the group's claim that the Park Service has failed to review the propriety of the park's bookstores to sell "Grand Canyon: A Different View." This book, by Tom Vail, claims that the Grand Canyon was created by the great flood that forced Noah to take to his ark. PEER would like it banned from the park.
Now, I say the claim "comes pretty close" to being true because the book has indeed been discussed within the agency but no final, official, decision has been reached by the agency's Office of Policy. Barna tells me that while some geologists within the Park Service think the book shouldn't be sold, others on the agency's interpretive staff believe park bookstores should carry material that addresses a wide range of topics and views.
Furthermore, he pointed out that through this country's history religion has played a very important role and so one can't thoroughly discuss the nation's cultural heritage without touching on religion.
"Like it or not, there are pieces of our religious history in the national parks," says Barna.
In discussing the matter with PEER's Ruch, I asked whether his group also believes that the Park Service should remove from all parks any media that address Native American lore and creationism, such as some tribes' beliefs that Devil's Tower was created not by geologic forces but rather by a giant bear. Indeed, the Devil's Tower Natural History Association sells "First Encounters," a book addressing Native American legends about the tower's creation.
Ruch didn't see any problem with Native American books, telling me that it's one thing to have a book that describes Native American theories and yet quite another to sell books that that espouse creationism as fact.
With hopes of ending this story's short, but vivid, life, Barna this morning put out a news release that stated, in part, that Vail's book "is sold in the inspirational section of the bookstore. In this section there are photographic texts, poetry books, and Native American books (that also give an alternate view of the canyon’s origin)."
"The park’s bookstore contains scores of text that give the NPS geologic view of the formation of the canyon," he added. "We do not use the 'creationism' text in our teaching nor do we endorse its content. However, it is not our place to censure alternate beliefs. Much like your local public library, you will find many alternate beliefs, but not all of these beliefs are used in the school classroom.
"It is not our place to tell people what to believe. We recognize that alternate views exist, but we teach the scientific method for the formation of the Grand Canyon."
But if one wants to quibble with Barna, closely read Director's Order #6, which contains the Park Service's guidelines for interpretation and education in the parks. Within this document you'll find a section or two that would argue against the sale of either Native American books or religious texts in the parks.
Under Section 7 of the order, the section pertaining to "Interpretive Competencies and Skills," it states that, "The same standards that apply to the NPS work force will also apply to cooperators, concessioners, contractors, and other partners who deliver interpretive and educational services in collaboration with or on behalf of the National Park Service."
Now, if you are of the opinion that bookstores in the parks are providing educational services, then I suppose an argument could be made that only texts that adhere to accepted science could be sold.
The next section of Director's Order #6 contains even stronger wording that would seem to prohibit the sale of religious and Native American texts. Under 8.4.2, Historical and Scientific Research, it states that:
Superintendents, historians, scientists, and interpretive staff are responsible for ensuring that park interpretive and educational programs and media are accurate and reflect current scholarship. To accomplish this, an on-going dialogue must be established. Questions often arise round the presentation of geological, biological, and evolutionary processes. The interpretive and educational treatment used to explain the natural processes and history of the Earth must be based on the best scientific evidence available, as found in scholarly sources that have stood the test of scientific peer review and criticism. The facts, theories, and interpretations to be used will reflect the thinking of the scientific community in such fields as biology, geology, physics, astronomy, chemistry, and paleontology.
Finally, for true nitpickers, while this section also directs that "interpretive and educational programs must refrain from appearing to endorse religious beliefs explaining natural processes," the very next sentence adds that "Programs, however, may acknowledge or explain other explanations of natural processes and events."
So where does this leave all this? Well, I'm kinda bummed that I couldn't skewer the administration once again. Beyond that, I'm fairly well-rooted in geologic theory and earth science and so Vail's book wouldn't appeal to me or sway me away from the generally accepted age of the Grand Canyon.
But there are many opinions out there. Frankly, I enjoy being presented with myriad viewpoints. Only through studying differing views can we come to our own with any certainty.