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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.


Thanks for tracking this issue Kurt. The statement that park interpreters were not able to discuss geologic time at the Grand Canyon seemed too far fetched. I appreciate you making the necessary phone calls and emails to resolve this issue. The problem with the false statement in PEER's release is that it calls into question every other statement made in the article. In particular, I wonder about this one: "PEER is also asking Director Bomar to approve a pamphlet, suppressed since 2002 by Bush appointees, providing guidance for rangers and other interpretive staff in making distinctions between science and religion when speaking to park visitors about geologic issues." Is there really a suppressed pamphlet?

Kurt, Good job on this and getting to the bottom of this. I thought the whole story smelled and paid almost no attention to it. I think the actual story is the story behind PEER's release. Why did they do this? It's almost too ridiculous to believe that they thought that the bad press this would generate would be worth the shoddy look at the truth because it's such a crazy story. It all seems so bizarre to me. It's one thing to point out all kinds of red herrings, non-issues, and ideological claims cloaked as scientific ones, but it's quite another just to be flat out wrong. I keep thinking reading this that there's got to be more to the story, or is PEER really that dumb? Jim (Hey I moved my blog and have a new essay up today - I'm not nearly so prolific as you) Newest essay: Yellowstone and class

Your investigation turned out very similarly to mine.

I went to the National Park Service Website. They ARE INDEED disguising the age of the Canyon. One has to search the NPS website like a hawk to find ANY mention of Geologic time. It just skirts around the issues of earth science. A TRAVESTY TO SCIENCE IS THE NATIONAL PARK WEBSITE OF THE GRAND CANYON.

Well, Scholar, I'm certainly no hawk, but right on the park's home page, in the lefthand column, is a link slugged "Nature and Science." Click on that and it takes you directly to a page that discusses the park's geology, including a boxed item that reads: Did You Know? The more recent Kaibab limestone caprock, on the rims of the Grand Canyon, formed 270 million years ago. In contrast, the oldest rocks within the Inner Gorge at the bottom of Grand Canyon date to 1.84 billion years ago. Geologists currently set the age of Earth at 4.5 billion years. If that's not enough of a start, click on the top of the page link called "Natural Features and Ecosystems" and you find more text about the park's geology, including this sentence: "The exposed geologic strata - layer upon layer from the basement Vishnu schist to the capping Kaibab limestone - rise over a mile above the river, representing one of the most complete records of geological history that can be seen anywhere in the world." I don't see any skirting here and certainly no disguising of the canyon's geologic age. Certainly, the material is a bit lacking for a college-level geology class, but for the general tourist class looking for a little background it seems fairly sufficient to me.

Nice job of reporting on this issue, more proof that the blogosphere can give the main stream media a run for its money. I came up with similar conclusions in reporting my short news item for Science, which will appear in our Random Samples section in the Jan 12 issue. best wishes, Michael Balter, Science

I’d just like to point out that in the year 2000 all the scientists who have been studying Grand Canyon got together for a symposium [Grand Canyon Symposium] to determine the age of Grand Canyon. Scientist after scientist presented his evidence. About 10 different ages were proposed ranging from 65 Ma to 1 Ma. There was NO consensus and there remains NO consensus. One group has since updated their estimate to 750,000 years. [All this can be found by a simple search on the internet] The PEER group is not really interested in the age of Grand Canyon, they just want to censor freedom of speech in public places and public stores, because it does not agree with their religous beliefs; i.e. the religion of evolutionism. [look up religion on] Allen

When I was a young girl I visited Mesa Verde National Park. My most vivid recollection was of a mummified Anasazi girl on display. She even had a name "Esther". Seeing "Esther" with her hair and some clothing still intact taught me more about the Anasazi than all the other displays. I returned as an adult and looked for "Esther". The ranger told me that she had been removed. Apparently, displaying this mummy offended the religious beliefs of the native peoples of the Four Corners region. So the educational value of the mummy was overruled by religion. Fortunately, for those who study Egypt or Pompeii, those remains of those peoples are still shown. So the NPS does value religious beliefs over education or science when native Americans might be offended.

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