Faith-Based Parks? Creationists meet the Grand Canyon

At a park called Dinosaur Adventure Land, run by creationists near Pensacola, Florida, visitors are informed that man coexisted with dinosaurs. This fantasy accommodates the creationists’ view that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and that Darwin’s theory of evolution is false. Among the park exhibits is one that illustrates another creationist article of faith. It consists of a long trough filled with sand and fitted at one end with a water spigot. Above the trough is a sign reading “That River Didn’t Make That Canyon.” When visitors open the spigot, the water quickly cuts a gully through the sand, supposedly demonstrating how the Grand Canyon was created, practically overnight, by Noah’s flood. That’s nonsense, of course, but what else would you expect at a creationist park? Certainly, one might think, this couldn’t be acceptable at, say, a National Park, right? Think again.

Two-thirds of the way across the continent, some four million people annually visit Grand Canyon National Park, marveling at the awesome view. In National Park Service (NPS) affiliated bookstores, they can find literature informing them that the great chasm runs for 277 miles along the bed of the Colorado River. It descends more than a mile into the earth, and along one stretch, is some 18 miles wide, its walls displaying impressive layers of limestone, sandstone, shale, schist and granite.

And, oh yes, it was formed about 4,500 years ago, a direct consequence of Noah’s Flood. How’s that? Yes, this is the ill-informed premise of “Grand Canyon, a Different View,” a handsomely-illustrated volume also on sale at the bookstores. It includes the writings of creationists and creation scientists and was compiled by Tom Vail, who with his wife operates Canyon Ministries, conducting creationist-view tours of the canyon. “For years,” Vail explains, “as a Colorado River guide, I told people how the Grand Canyon was formed over the evolutionary time span of millions of years. (Most geologists place the canyon’s age at some six million years). Then I met the Lord. Now I have a different view of the Canyon, which according to a biblical time scale, can’t possibly be more than a few thousand years old.”

Vail’s book attracted little notice when it first appeared in the NPS stores in 2003, until a critical review by Wilfred Elders, a respected University of California geologist, brought it to light and took apart its pseudoscientific claims. That led David Shaver, who heads the Geologic Resources Division of the Park Service, to send a memo to headquarters urging that the book be removed from the NPS stores. “It is not based on science,” he wrote, “ but on a specific religious doctrine…and should not have been approved for in NPS affiliated book stores.”

The presidents of The American Geological Institute and six of its member societies also weighed in, expressing their dismay to the Park Service. Noting that the Grand Canyon “provides a remarkable and unique opportunity to educate the public about Earth science,” the scientists urged that, “in fairness to the millions of park visitors, we must clearly distinguish religious from scientific knowledge.”

But when Grand Canyon National Park superintendent Joe Alston attempted to block the sale of Vail’s book at canyon bookstores, he was overruled by NPS headquarters, which announced that a high-level policy review of the matter would be launched and a decision made by February, 2004. So far, no official decision has been announced.

Even worse, according to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an organization that includes many Park employees, papers obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that no review has ever taken place. Indeed, PEER claims that the Bush Administration has already decided it will stand by its approval for the book and that hundreds more have been ordered. “Now that the book has become quite popular,” explained an NPS flack to a Baptist news agency, “we don’t want to remove it.”

Even more troubling, PEER charges that Grand Canyon National Park no longer offers an official estimate of the age of the canyon, and that the NPS has blocked publication of guidance intended for park rangers that reminds them there is no scientific basis for creationism. The group has been increasingly concerned about what it calls the Park Service’s “Faith-Based Parks” and the agency’s seeming indifference to the separation of church and state Among other moves, for example, NPS has allowed the placing of bronze plaques bearing Psalm verses at Grand Canyon overlooks. PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch is indignant, “If the Bush Administration is using public resources for pandering to Christian fundamentalists, it should at least have the decency to tell the truth about it.”

Is this religious bias, as some creationists charge? Hardly. It’s more than likely that the majority of scientists, environmentalists and others protesting the NPS stand are themselves intelligent, rational Christians who are convinced by overwhelming evidence that the Grand Canyon is no Johnny-Come-Lately. The creationists have demonstrated again that they are scientifically illiterate, and out of step with the 21st century.

Leon Jaroff was the founding managing editor of DISCOVER, the newsmagazine of science, and was a longtime correspondent, writer and editor for TIME and LIFE. More columns by Leon Jaroff.

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