Great Basin National Park: It's More Than Simply A Cave

While Lehman Caves burrows for roughly a quarter-mile into Great Basin National Park's basement, Wheeler Peak rises to 13,065 feet.

What in the world was Jim Hansen thinking back in the 1990s when, as a U.S. representative from Utah and chair of the House Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Lands, he said Great Basin National Park should be removed from the National Park System?

"If you've been there once,” he once said, “you don't need to go again.”

Perhaps the former congressman didn’t spend enough time at Great Basin to truly appreciate this gem that climbs high above the surrounding desertlands.

It does take some exploring to fully appreciate this national park and all it offers. Indeed, it started out 87 years ago today simply as Lehman Caves National Monument, an honor stemming from an intriguing cave system discovered late in the 19th Century.

That title vanished in 1986 when Great Basin “National Park” was formally created by an act of Congress, a move that took note not only of the cave system but also the surrounding glaciers, ancient Bristlecone pines, and massive Wheeler Peak to form what is still one of America's lesser-known crown jewels.

Let’s take a closer look at this transformation from monument to national park. Back in the late-1800s, eastern Nevada was a harsh place. The flat, dusty Snake Valley, with its low-laying sage and arid nature, stood in stark contrast to the rumples and tall crinkles of the mountains that towered on either side of it. Into this landscape strode one Absalom Lehman, who started a ranch in the lowlands near Weaver Creek.

Mr. Lehman was no stranger to adventure, having moved from his native Ohio to California, left for Australia, married an Englishwoman, and run a gold mine before returning stateside. While there are more than 40 stories of the discovery of the caves near his ranch, the first recorded media attention paid to the discovery was an article the White Pine Reflex ran on April 15, 1885.

“Ab Lehman, of Snake Valley, reports that he and others have struck a cave of wondrous beauty on his ranch near Jeff Davis Peak. Stalactites of extraordinary size hang from its roof and stalagmites equally large rear their heads from the floor...”

Over the years, Lehman Caves -- which actually is a single cave, not a series of caves -- gradually grew in notoriety. The cave played host to visitors who took part in guided tours, as well as more hardy explorers. Local people are even said to have taken some of the cave's formations as far away as the Reno state fair. Lehman the man, however died in 1891, before he saw his cave gain the national spotlight.

Congress first added the area to the Humboldt Forest Reserve (now Humboldt National Forest) in 1912. World War I came and went, and United States Highway 50, thought be some to be the loneliest road in America, came into the area. Soon, the Nevada congressional delegation began to look into the creation of a national monument for the cave.

President Warren G. Harding used his Antiquities Act authority to create Lehman Caves National Monument on January 25, 1922. In August of that same year, a large festival was held welcoming the new park. State and local governments took action as well, to the point that the land was protected at nearly every level of government in some fashion.

When President Roosevelt transferred the management of national monuments to the National Park Service, Lehman Caves changed rapidly. New Deal programs, along with the new management, Mission 66, and Hollywood brought newfound prosperity and protection to the monument.

But Lehman Caves was not to last as a national monument. Its fate had been sealed millennia ago, when Wheeler Peak, rising 13,065 feet, was formed, and when the seeds of Bristlecone pine trees first germinated atop the mountain.

As word spread of Wheeler Peak's glaciers and trees, the public began to push for the creation of a national park at Lehman Caves. Surely, park advocates argued, organisms as old as Western Civilization itself deserved protection.

The park movement particularly gained steam after researchers cut down Prometheus, a Bristlecone pine estimated to be at least 5,000 years old. In the 1980s, then-Representative Harry Reid introduced legislation to create the park. While the bill went through several iterations, President Reagan finally signed it on October 27, 1986.

Lehman Caves National Monument was no more. It had been swept away and replaced by Great Basin National Park, a land that today is known for its pristine air quality, high-country hiking and camping, incredibly dark skies, cave tours, and as one of the emptiest parks in America in one of the emptiest places in America.

Great Basin National Park has the cleanest air of any park in the Continental United States, and for that alone, it – along with its forefather, Lehman Caves National Monument – deserves our attention on the 87th anniversary of its founding.

While the park, thankfully, no longer is a target of decommissioning, it isn’t free of threats or controversy. A proposed coal plant in the park's neighborhood is threatening to harm the park's world-class air quality, for which it is so prized.

The mayor of Ely, Nevada (the closest major town) published an open letter to Nevada mayors concerning coal-fired power plants and the Government Accountability Office's study of air quality at Great Basin National Park.

Mayor Hickman believes that making Great Basin a Class I Air Quality Zone under the Clean Air Act would lead to a 'domino' effect in the Nevada economy. According to his letter in the Ely Times, the new Class I designation (the highest level of protection), would destroy local jobs by impeding mining and farming activities.

Comments

Well done article, Chance! Back in the 70's, I was privileged to be the only signup for the daily cave tour. The excellent guide/naturalist took the extra time to show some seldom visited parts of amazing Lehman Cave, one of the most interesting I have visited. The back roads of northern Nevada are (were?) also beautiful. One could then drive for hours without seeing so much as a fence or powerline. Often the only sign of man was the cracked asphalt being slowly reclaimed by hardy desert plants. I suspect this has changed during the gold and energy rushes of the intervening decades.

Jim Hansen needs some perspective. If he wants to drop park units from the system, he should visit Oregon Caves National Monument. The lovely forest setting would make a fine state park, but the cave is a moldy, blasted tunnel with almost nothing of interest. If it were a commercial cave in the east or midwest, it would have long ago gone out of business.

I have enjoyed the cave about 22 times and yet saw something new each time. I have spent a week camping in the beautiful mountains and taking awesome nature hikes with knowledgable forest rangers. After travleing to many state and national parks, I can tell you this is one not to miss. Even the road to the cave is an experence. Locals have decorated the fence post and you laugh all the way.
Check out their web site.

You can research this for yourself but I believe it's true — Great Basin is the national park in the lower 48 furthest from a Wal-Mart.

Great Basin National Park is one of our favortie parks to visit. The hike out through the bristlecones to the rock glacier is one of my personal favorites. The cave is really neat and a big hit with our two children. Wheeler Peak is a nice moderate hike. Osceola Ditch is interesting as well as Baker Creek. We hope to get out to the arch this summer, if we can hit the park between thunderstorms.

The "gentleman" who wanted to remove Great Basin as a national park is an idiot, perhaps too lazy to get out there and truly enjoy all that Great Basin NP has to offer.

Thank God for Ronald Reagan!

Had an opportunity to visit Great Basin back in October of 2008. Incredible remoteness and beauty. At that time of year there was only one other person on the cave tour. The next day on Wheeler Peak I only encoutered three other people. If you get a chance also visit Lexington Arch.

This park has a really nice variety of things to see and do - it's worth the drive to get there!

I had the great privilege to serve as the 2008 season Artist-in-Residence at this magnificent park.
The six weeks I lived and worked there will always remain a high point of my life and my career.
K. Malouff
celadonglass.com