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Grand Canyon National Park Embroiled in Creationism Issue

In August 2003, NCSE sponsored a raft trip down Grand Canyon. We then became aware that the Grand Canyon Association, a private nonprofit organized to benefit Grand Canyon National Park, was selling a creationist book in its bookstores. The book, Grand Canyon: Another View, by river guide Tom Vail, has attractive photographs of Grand Canyon, plenty of Bible quotes, and an abundance of young-earth creation "science." Co-authors of the book include many Institute for Creation Research employees and associates, including Steve Austin, Henry and John Morris, Duane Gish, Kurt Wise, Ken Ham, and others. The book contains the usual creationist attacks on radiometric dating, uniformitarian geological processes, and the age of the earth, and is upfront about placing what its authors consider to be the revealed truth of the Bible above "mere" scientific evidence. According to the book, the sedimentary strata in Grand Canyon were formed by deposition from Noah's Flood, and the canyon itself was cut when a large (if unknown) lake burst its natural dam and cut through the strata in a matter of days. They claim that scientific evidence unrecognized by standard geologists supports these views. A review of the book by geologist Wilfred Elders can be found here. [Link is broken]

The presence of the book in the nonprofit association’s bookstores poses a dilemma for interpreters at the park. Park Service interpretive exhibits and interpreters' presentations present mainstream science regarding the age of the canyon and the processes that formed it. In fact, NPS Management Policies clearly state:

Interpretive and educational programs will be based on current scholarship and research about the history, science, and condition of park resources.... (section 7.5.4)
Most visitors to the park will not distinguish between facilities managed by the National Park Service (NPS) and the nonprofit association's management of the bookstores; hence it is reasonable to assume that people will believe that the young-earth position is accepted by NPS staff. This makes the job of interpretation more difficult -– and interpreters already receive pressure from creationist visitors to "give all of the evidence" and present a young-earth view.

All books sold at the bookstore first are approved by the manager of the park, suggesting that the NPS is conscious that its reputation is reflected in all facilities in the park, whether administered by NPS or concessionaires. (The Grand Canyon administration is perhaps unusually sensitive to issues with any religious components, due to a recent unrelated event. On advice from the Department of Justice, Park Superintendent Joe Alston removed three plaques containing Bible verses from park property on July 9 (see article here). [Link is broken] His order was countermanded by NPS officials in Washington, and the plaques were quietly restored on July 23.) A final decision on whether to continue carrying Vail's book has not been made; rather, the decision has been kicked upstairs to the NPS office in Washington. The wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly, and it may be a long time before the official decision is made. In the meantime, the book continues to be sold at the bookstores.

In addition to individual NCSE members who have written to the Grand Canyon administration and to the Park Service headquarters in Washington, the presidents of several geological associations (the Paleontological Association, the American Geophysical Union, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the Association of American State Geologists, the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology, the American Geological Institute, and the Geological Society of America) have also joined in a statement recommending that the book not be carried in Park bookstores. It can be found here.

The geologists succinctly summarized the argument against the bookstores' carrying Vail's book: "The National Park Service should be extremely careful about giving the impression that it approves of the anti-science movement known as young Earth creationism or endorses the advancement of religious tenets as science. The book aggressively attacks modern science and broadly accepted interpretations of the geologic history of the Grand Canyon. As such, any implied approval or endorsement by the NPS for the book and others like it undermines efforts to educate the public about the scientific understanding of Grand Canyon geology."

There are many independent bookstores that stock Grand Canyon: A Different View in communities all around the park: NCSE rafters saw copies for sale in bookstores in the town of Marble Canyon, for example. Those who want a religious, young-earth interpretation of Grand Canyon thus have ample opportunity to purchase the book and are free to do so. But the Park Service does not serve its purposes of enlightening the public about the science behind Grand Canyon by countenancing a book so clearly at odds with NPS's goal of presenting "current scholarship and research" about this wonder of nature.