Creating a Ruckus

The Park Service balances science with superstition at the Grand Canyon

Saguaro National Park offers a bevy of learning tools for school kids--fun-filled packets, mostly online, detailing how our real estate was put together: the thawing Ice Age, man's dubious debut and a preponderance of rather frightful creatures ranging from dire wolves to saber-toothed tigers.

According to Saguaro's teaching tools, this particularly ornery saga occurred about 10,000 years ago.

But visit another park on the other end of Arizona, and you'll discover a decidedly divergent take. In the Grand Canyon's visitor center, there's a very popular book called The Grand Canyon: A Different View. This creationist masterwork describes how the natural wonder was fashioned a mere 4,500 years ago, by the punishing flood described in Genesis. According to A Different View, God was miffed at man's evil ways, ergo the Big Ditch.

Or in the words of author Tom Vail, "the mile-deep Canyon itself, which could never have been carved out by the waters of the present river, tells of a time when a great dammed-up lake full of water from the Flood suddenly broke and a mighty hydraulic monster roared down toward the sea, digging deeply into the path it had chosen ..."

And that means the Grand Canyon wasn't even created by the time mastodons and their ilk were rumbling among Southern Arizona's signature cactuses.

Well, mastodons have long since given way to motor homes at Saguaro National Park. But the Grand Canyon controversy still threatens to replace good science with bad faith, in an agency many consider under fundamentalist siege.

While sales of A Different View provide plenty of cash for Grand Canyon coffers--it's a top seller among the park's 4.5 million annual visitors--the book has also sparked fierce criticism. Many say the National Park Service has no place hawking a religious tome, and especially one that contradicts information dished out by park rangers themselves.

Among those critics is Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER. "The book certainly doesn't provide much comfort to geologists, as to the esteem with which their discipline is held by the leadership of their agency," he says.

According to Ruch, the Park Service even short-circuited its own review policies when A Different View was first accepted for sale. The Weekly obtained a copy of that review, conducted in 2003. In one category, an agency reviewer is asked to circle "accurate" or "inaccurate." Problem solved: The reviewer simply drew a circle between the two choices.

The reviewer in question is Judy Bryan, Grand Canyon's chief of interpretation. Bryan defends her choice not to choose, calling it a "philosophical" decision. She adds that products in her gift shop "offer many different perspectives."

In another section, a reviewer didn't circle anything regarding whether the book helped fulfill the park's mission. "The Grand Canyon from a creationists point of view," the person wrote. "Beautiful photos. An alternative to a strict creationist view."

"I vote for making this alternative available," wrote another, "and letting readers draw their own conclusions."

Ruch draws a few conclusions of his own. "How can the Park Service still be selling this book," he asks, "when their own rules say they must sign off on its accuracy or whether it supports their interpretive themes?"

And, yes, Park Service geologists are having a tough time with the biblical take on Grand Canyon prehistory, particularly since they peg the canyon's origin at millions of years ago, rather than a few thousand. David B. Shaver is chief of the agency's Geologic Resources Division, and he wrote a protest letter to the Park Service's Office of Policy.

"Well-documented scientific theory concludes that it was precisely the cutting effect of the waters of the Colorado River drainage system over millennia that created the Grand Canyon ..." Shaver wrote.

"NPS approval of a book that repudiates science and promotes a narrow religious viewpoint for sale in a park bookstore raises the question as to whether such approval is contrary to statutory direction to use a 'program of the highest quality science.'"

Shaver urges "that the book not be sold in park bookstores because the book purports to be science when it is not, and its sale in the park bookstore directly conflicts with the Service's statutory mandate to promote the use of sound science in all its programs, including public education."

That letter was dated Jan. 25, 2004.

So how is the Park Service reconciling this vast chasm of logic three years later? The short answer: It isn't. And long after a promised review of agency policies regarding religion, that review has yet to start. Nor has the agency concretely addressed Shaver's concerns. "It's fair to say that his view represents that of the scientific community in the Park Service," says David Barna, the agency's chief of public affairs in Washington, D.C. "But that's just one side of this issue.

"We' re not being shy about the fact that there's a lot of controversy here," Barna says. "There are big differences of opinion about what to do with this book. It's safe to say that, in the last three years, we haven't been able to resolve those differences to get to a decision that would change the fact that it's for sale."

In other words, don't hold your breath. Meanwhile, President George W. Bush's penchant for inserting religion into public policy seems at the core of this scuffle. Ruch cites controversy over a giant cross displayed at Mojave National Preserve and battles over a videotape shown at the Lincoln Memorial. Conservatives claim the video glorifies gay-rights rallies held there. "In all of these instances, we see the Bush administration catering to Christian fundamentalists," Ruch says.

But so far, it looks like officials at Saguaro National Park are sticking to the official version of events. That includes plenty of prehistory, but not much in the way of biblical postulations.

"I'm not aware of any publications that we sell that are faith-based," says Saguaro Chief Ranger Bob Love. "I checked with our bookstore manager, and she wasn't aware of any, either."

Thank the Lord for that.