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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.


What is not disputed is that GCNP has been polluted by Catholic hate messages in the form of bronze plaques at various points along the south rim. I've seen them myself, and they still make me want to vomit. The obsessed nuns involved chose particulary disgusting phrases from their mythology, demanding that park attendees worship their god OR ELSE. If only I'd had a vial of etching acid with me...

Two points from a non-American reader. First, the avoidance of the word "billion" is probably done to reduce confusion for non-US visitors: in many parts of the world a "billion" (still) means "a million million". Secondly, even though I don't think the website is at all misleading about the age of the Canyon, I was disappointed at the cursory treatment of the geological history. The "Nature and Science" page states that "nature & science includes: Animals, Plants, Environmental Factors, and Natural Features & Ecosystems". The omission of geology is odd, and should be rectified.

@Jeffrey Weiss, maybe they're playing it safe for an international audience? Billion doesn't mean 1,000,000,000 to everyone yet. I'm sure it will, as American is adopted as the world view of, well, the world. It's already less common than it once was, but for now some people still use billion to mean 1,000,000,000,000.

I am grateful to you, Kurt, for clearing this up for me. When my son first sent me this story I was shocked and horrified, but also highly skeptical; it just didn't sound right. It fit in the same category as "too good to be true"; only in this case it was more, "too stupid to be true." In addition, I couldn't find any mainstream coverage of what should be a BIG story, nor any other verificatin. I am highly pleased and relieved to learn that it isn't true that the fine rangers who do such excellent teaching aren't being hog-tied as described. As to the book.... I don't know. I'm an atheist and find no value in garbage such as that book, so I wish it wouldn't be sold at all. Further, while I seriously don't like restrictions of freedom, I don't trust an administration whose participants talk to a god, so it just makes me nervous. I am now also grateful to have found your website. I'm going to bookmark this and it will be a great travel resource. Suggestion: your full name should be somewhere on this "front" page.

*devilish* What else is OBVIOUSLY weird is that 2 billion years is closer to 6,000 years than it is to 4 billion! One might say that the NPS is 60 hundred years closer to the fundamentalist religious right than they are to the oldest rocks in North America that surely evolution wouldn't have placed in Northern Canada. I smell a monkey! *question: Is my sarcasm sufficiently sarcastic?*

Not that it has anything clearly to do with faith/nofaith. But the page that link goes to *is* oddly worded: "Although the oldest rocks at Grand Canyon (2000 million years old) are fairly old by any standard, the oldest rocks in the world are closer to 4000 million years old. The oldest exposed rocks in North America, which are among the oldest rocks in the world, are in northern Canada." 2,000 million=2 billion, yes? I wonder why the unusual math.

For Luther the Canyon Lover

kath, I think I've mentioned being an anarchist, so don't be so quick to presume that what you think is the absurd logical extreme is so far from my beliefs. I don't have a great opinion on science versus religion. In my recent essay criticizing Alston Chase's "Playing God in Yellowstone," I criticized the dichotomizing of a world that sets science and religion on such strictly distinct playing fields. So, you're basically going to find me on pretty much nobody's side in this squabble of science versus religion (even if I do believe that the Grand Canyon is pretty damn old - and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone a mere 20,000 years old formed by retreating glaciers - rather than a retreating flood). On the issue though of indigenous people, I do think that in land that was essentially stolen that it makes little sense for people to determine that the scientific issues are going to be the paramount issues of concern. The stories and the cultures and values of other people do matter, and the values of people who are historically oppressed matter all the more because their voices are not out there. Wherever in the United States indigenous peoples wish to speak and assert their values, I think we are bound to listen. It's the price of empire. If that has the effect of suggesting that the empire shouldn't be here, so be it. Science is best used to answer scientific questions; it does not have a monopoly on value or on truth. Not all questions of truth are questions of science. Questions about the age of the canyon are empirical questions for science to answer; questions about what should be sold in a bookstore are questions which are altogether different. Questions about whether indigenous values should be respected at the expense of other values are very different kinds of questions. Notice that no one is making a "scientific" argument here as to the pre-eminence of science; we are making ethical arguments. I think people wishing to attack the National Park Service can find much stronger grounds here than whether the age of the Grand Canyon is adequately shown well enough on its Web site. For Christ's sake, the depth of the wrongs is much deeper, and I find PEER's press release to be unfortunate. When I read stuff like what's exploded on Kurt's blog today, I realize why I have so few liberal friends these days. I don't sense they are serious about making a strong critique against the system that's in place; they simply want to snipe and take pot shots at their sworn enemies (Bush and friends). Yet, they end up sounding a lot like them, using anything to get a rise out of the faithful and to beat out the devil from the holy church of privilege. The history of the Grand Canyon, the park, and such is a history in the past couple hundred years of conquest, genocide, and doing something with what's left over. It is a story of capitalism and exploitation masquerading as preservation and science. That's a right wing agenda, but so long as people think that ridding a creationist book or making a Web site more clear is the main issue, we won't actually get at the roots of these things. So, yes, I don't know or care too much about indigenous religions, but I do think we are missing the point of why paying attention to indigenous concerns can in fact trump scientific considerations, and it is not the same as catering to the religious right. But, I think most people in this debate might as well be catering to the same systems of abuse for all the energy that has gone into it. Kurt has done a good job at getting to the bottom of an exaggerated factual claim. It should be looked at on those merits, and then we should move on to more interesting things than PEER's shoddy claims. I don't agree that they shouldn't be about religion and politics--one cannot separate what parks are as somehow distinct from those issues--but it shouldn't be about this. Jim

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