The NPS vs. Creationists in: The Age of the Grand Canyon

14 01 2007

“Flood Geology” is essentially the cornerstone of modern young-earth creationist thought, the one explanation that can serve nearly any purpose. Why do we find massive assemblages of fossils? The Flood did it. Why are the fossils of Liaoning, China so well preserved? The Flood did it. What formed the Grand Canyon? The Flood. I’ve actually been a bit perplexed by some of the YEC assertions involving the Canyon, one creationist speaker once telling me he stood on “Day 3 Rock” and sang to God, and of course I have no idea whether “Day 3” is symbolic for the 3rd day of Creation, the 3rd day of the Flood, the 3rd day of the week (why anyone would want to honor Wednesday in such a fashion, I don’t know), or something else entirely. Nevertheless, with the pseudoscience of Flood Geology being kickstarted by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris in 1961, there has been a bit of controversy surrounding the Canyon, especially with the addition of a book entitled The Grand Canyon: A Different View to the National Park’s bookstore. The book itself, by author Tom Vail, describes the Canyon from a YEC perspective, assuming the world is no more than ~6,000 years old and the world as we know it was created during the 6 days of creation in Genesis, the Noachian Deluge producing the geological formations and fossils we know of today (and don’t even get me started on the Tower of Babel nonsense to cover for human evolution). Why does this matter?

The controversy about the age of the Grand Canyon has become more than a matter of academic honesty on the part of the NPS; recently it was suggested by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) that the National Park Service was not allowed to cite an official age for the Grand Canyon because of pressure from conservative creationists involved with the creationist-friendly Bush administration. Thus, it’s been forwarded by PEER that the creationist text was the only book added to park bookstores in 2003, 22 other books being rejected after going through a selection process meant to upkeep the integrity and honesty of the materials sold at the park. So, you have the NPS administration on one side arguing that the park bookstores are suppossed to be like libraries (i.e. allowing for other interpretations of the Canyon), and PEER arguing that the bookstores are suppossed to be more like classrooms, citing the directive in Interpretation and Education (Director’s Order #6), stating

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. Interpretive and educational programs must refrain from appearing to endorse religious beliefs explaining natural processes.

What is truly curious, however, is the last line of this section, which says

Programs, however, may acknowledge or explain other explanations of natural processes and events.

The inclusion of this final line is a bit odd, seeming to run counter to the necessity to present scientific accuracy in the park. Does this mean that administrators can discuss creationist claims as long as they do not endorse them? I would assume this would mean that if a creationist brings up an issue the park employee can discuss the claim and correct it as needed, thus not making “mum” the word in such a situation. Even so, it’s curious that after a paragraph of explanation about how the best science is to be upheld there’s a little line at the end that allows for “other explanations of natural processes.” Curious about these issues, I wrote to the current head of the NPS and received the following e-mail reply from David Barna, current Chief of Public Affairs. The e-mail, in its entirety, goes as follows;

Age of Grand Canyon

Recently there have been several media and internet reports concerning the National Park Service’s interpretation of the formation of the Grand Canyon.

The National Park Service uses the latest National Academy of Sciences explanation for the geologic formation of the Grand Canyon. Our guidance to the field is contained in the NPS Management Policies 2006 and NPS Director’s Order # 6 and requires that 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. Our commitment to scientific accuracy is also driven by Director’s Order #11B, which requires us to ensure the objectivity of the information we disseminate.

Therefore, our interpretive talks, way-side exhibits, visitor center films, etc use the following explanation for the age of the geologic features at Grand Canyon. If asked the age of the Grand Canyon, our rangers use the following answer.

“The principal consensus among geologists is that the Colorado River basin has developed in the past 40 million years and that the Grand Canyon itself is probably less than five to six
million years old. The result of all this erosion is one of the most complete geologic columns on the planet. The major geologic exposures in Grand Canyon range in age from the 1.7 billion year old Vishnu Schist at the bottom of the Inner Gorge to the 270 million year old Kaibab Limestone on the Rim.”

So, why are there news reports that differ from this explanation? Since 2003 the park bookstore has been selling a book that gives a Creationist view of the formation of the Grand Canyon, claiming that the canyon is less than six thousand years old. This 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 alternative view of the canyon’s origin).

The park’s bookstore contains scores of texts that give the NPS geologic view of the formation of the canyon.

We do not use the Creationist text in our teaching nor do we endorse its content. However, neither do we censor alternative beliefs. Much like your local public library, you will find many alternative beliefs, but not all of these beliefs are used in the school classroom.

It is not our role to tell people what to believe. We recognize that alternative views exist, but we teach the scientific explanation for the formation of the Grand Canyon.

I hope this explanation helps.

David Barna
Chief of Public Affairs
National Park Service
Washington, DC
Registered Professional Geologist (AIPG #6528)
Licensed Geologist (North Carolina #129)

This response if curious for a few reasons. First, as I mentioned earlier, it seems to reflect the view that the bookstore is a library and that nearly anything would be allowable in it, which leads me to wonder what the 22 rejected books from 2003 were and why they were axed while the creationist text was allowed. Second, I think the argument of “[We sell] Native American books (that also give an alternative view of the canyon’s origin),” is a bit weak, and it does not mention if such books are entirely about an alternate origin or they are books about Native Americans that include an alternate origin for the Canyon. Even so, the books on Native Americans at least have some anthropological value while the creationist text would do more to mislead than educate.

The closing thoughts on not censoring alternate beliefs was odd to me as well, and although I agree that it is not the job of a government agency to tell anyone what they believe it seems that the creationists are getting a bit of special treatment (especially since they bring a fair bit of tourism to the park, running tours and rafting adventures and the like). If the same person who came up with the Flying Spaghetti Monster wrote a book on an alternative explanation for the formation of the Grand Canyon, would it be included as well? It would have just as much basis in reality as the YEC text, so why not add it to the inspirational section? If nothing else, at least the book is in the “Inspirational Section” and not touted by the NPS as a legitimate scientific text, and I am not going to make a federal case about a book that is unlikely to be purchased by anyone other than a creationist. Even so, I am a bit unsettled by the NPS attitude about the issue, the book running counter to the standards mentioned in the park’s directives and having no educational value in context of the park or its history. Indeed, it seems that I know the NPS wouldn’t dare tout the book as accurate or move it to the science section, some allowances were made that perhaps should not have been, creating a few loopholes so that very little comment actually has to be made about the book.

All in all, such events are frustrating but I doubt the book is a big seller among visitors that aren’t young-earth creationists. What I do wonder is how will the intellectual development of a child who picks up the book for its pretty pictures be impacted once they actually read the book? When I was a kid I loved nature and made my parents buy all kinds of books I never really read because they were gorgeously illustrated, so I can’t help but wonder about those who may pick up this book not knowing what it is. There are bigger and more important battles to fight, and perhaps I will get out to the Grand Canyon someday in the future and can see what is going no there for myself. In the end, this “controversy” will likely be little more than a footnote in the “long argument” that is evolution vs creationism, and I would rather discuss evolution than pour over documents generated by public bureaucracies.


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5 01 2012
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