Science and the National Park Service: a festering problem

The declining scientific content expressed by the National Park Service has been an issue for years; the latest complaints (that I wrote about, and that Wesley Elsberry has now brought up) are just recent flareups of awareness. The National Park Service seems determined to strip out anything intellectually challenging from the experiences in their parks — the ideal seems to be Chevy Chase’s reaction from the movie Vacation (if you don’t know what I mean, here’s a short homage). Pete Dunkelberg has brought a letter in Science from 28 October 2005 to my attention — it accuses the Park Service of dumbing down the interpretive material and turning it into a purely aesthetic experience.

It was with wistfulness that I read John Schmidt’s review of James Powell’s book Grand Canyon (“The grand question,” 16 Sept., p. 1818). I was a teenager in the late 1960s when my family took an epic car trip around the United States, visiting the Grand Canyon and many other national parks. As a budding naturalist, I was eager to hear the words of park rangers and avidly read interpretive material. I made lists of plants and animals and soaked up information about habitats, succession, geological change, and evolution. In a fit of nostalgia, I recently repeated the epic with my wife and two children, driving from Washington State to Florida, hitting as many of the parks as we could. The only place I could find scientific content was in the less visited parks that had not been remodeled in a while. The Grand Canyon was the most chilling. The modern visitor center was architecturally magnificent but intellectually vacuous. With open spaces and giant images, it emphasized only the aesthetic experience. There was homage to John Wesley Powell, the man who carried out early explorations of the canyon and helped found the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Geographic Society. Yet the principles he so strongly promoted–rationalism and scientific curiosity as a means of appreciating the world and improving human welfare–were being relegated to obscurity. Schmidt notes that on viewing the canyon we ask, “How did this happen?” The current displays and signage at the Grand Canyon do their best to avoid any such question. As we left the park, we stopped to watch the sunrise at Desert View, a popular site. The most prominent sign at the overlook addressed only the visual beauty of the canyon and the religious significance of a distant mountain to Native Americans. One paragraph began, “The landscape seems consciously designed.”

John T. Longino
The Evergreen State College
Olympia, WA 98505, USA

(The cited article is a positive review of this book, Grand Canyon: Solving Earth’s Grandest Puzzle(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), which describes the complicated chronology of the Canyon — and no, doesn’t suggest that it could be a few thousand years young.)


  1. says

    This is because it takes far too much energy to think. Call it the television generation since they’ve had everything spoon fed to them in little 10-15 minute chunks.

    But neither life or science cannot be neatly resolved in little chunks. It’s taking those chunks and building on it that makes things happen.

  2. Robert Phillips says

    In fairness to the National Park: I spent this Christmas at the Grand Canyon. Upon entering the park, we were handed a flier called “Grand Canyon – The Guide”. There on page 5 was a full page description of the geology showing the age of the various strata, all the way down to the “Vishnu basement rocks 1.84-1.68 billion years”. If there was any young earth baloney on display, I didn’t notice it.

  3. Jonathan H says

    Over the last several years, the NPS has had its funding cut left and right. I don’t have hard figures here, but I recall a program on the subject one evening a couple of years ago on one of the better news programs. With that in mind, the dumbing down of NPS literature and experience might very well be a part of the NPS strategy to draw in more visitors to the many sites. Once the numbers go up, NPS might be able to make a strong case before the money-givers.

    That’s just one theory, of course, but I think it’s at least plausible to think that NPS leaders are trying to come up with the best way to get through a money crisis. It’s just too bad that they think this is the best way.

  4. says

    I quite agree that if you go up to a park ranger and talk to them, you’ll find most are sensible people who’ve had at least basic training in geology or wildlife science or some similarly natural discipline — this is a problem of rot at the head, not in the ranks.

  5. bernarda says

    What do you mean, Tony P, about the television generation(s)not using the energy to think? After all, they made American Idol the number one show and they made Paris Hilton the number one news subject of google searches. Those are notable achievements, aren’t they?

  6. says

    Regarding NPS funding:

    I just came across a column (“Geologic Column,” of course) in Geotimes of August 2005 by Fred Schwab. Total 2004 NPS budget was about $2.6 billion (compared with $1.8 trillion for health care). NPS has about 20,000 professional employees and about 140,000 volunteers. The backlog of needed repairs as of March 2005 was estimated at $9.7 billion.

  7. Keanus says

    For what it’s worth the actual NPS Budget for 2005 was $2.7 billion; for 2006 it was $2.6 billion and for 2007 the request (not yet approved given the grand punt by the now-expired do-nothing Republican Congress) is $2.5 billion. Mind you, these are the requests of the Bush administration and not the actual NPS. Incidentally, the NPS estimates that it has about $9.7billion in deferred maintenance that needs to be addressed but which the Bushies have considered unimportant. It’s no wonder the NPS offerings seem lacking and that they lack the power to push for anything that might offer benefits to the public.

  8. Dee says

    This topic (young Grand Canyon) came up in the canyoneering forum I belong to as well. I was a little shocked when someone posted links to a couple of articles from the Answers in Gensis folks, with a comment about how the 6000 year age for the Grand Canyon had some basis in science. So far there have been several posts calling bullshit on the AIG claims in those articles.

    I spend a lot of time in national parks in the Colorado Plateau, and there has been a significant shift in the focus of the rangers, from interaction/education with the public, to law enforcement. So in addition to the shortfall in funding, parks (at least the ones I visit) spend more and more time dealing with the drunks, speeding vehicles, vandalism and theft. I am under the impression that more and more of the education is done by volunteers. A couple of park/BLM rangers who post on the canyoneering site have mentioned that career advancement tends to happen through the enforcement end of the business now, not the conservation end. How formal or longstanding that is, and whether it’s a product of the current administration or a natural by-product of the explosion of visitors at national parks (at least in my neck of the woods), I don’t know. But it may be part of the change in people’s experiences.

  9. says

    About funding: With what we’ve spent on invading Iraq, we could have funded the NPS at current levels for about 250 years.

    “I quite agree that if you go up to a park ranger and talk to them, you’ll find most are sensible people who’ve had at least basic training in geology or wildlife science or some similarly natural discipline — this is a problem of rot at the head, not in the ranks.”

    As a former national park ranger, I can attest to the fact that most NPS interpretive rangers have degrees in science (both natural and social sciences). Additionally, interpretive rangers get extensive training in educational techniques (including the NPS’s Interpretive Development Program) and content knowledge at each park in which they work.

    Finally, when I worked at Crater Lake National Park and told visitors Mt. Mazama erupted 7,700 years ago, from time to time a visitor asked how that was possible when the earth is only 6000 years old. It’s a segment of the public, not the rangers, who are to blame. This small, but vocal, segment are the ones who pressure politicians who in turn pressure the bloated bureaucrats of the NPS.

    Finally, while looking for interpretive (education) positions with the NPS, I’ve noticed there is about a 4 to 1 ratio of law enforcement jobs to education jobs. This shift has occured since Bush took office.

  10. says

    I want to direct your attention to

    Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER’s environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.

    “As one park geologist said, this is equivalent of Yellowstone National Park selling a book entitled Geysers of Old Faithful: Nostrils of Satan,” Ruch added, pointing to the fact that previous NPS leadership ignored strong protests from both its own scientists and leading geological societies against the agency approval of the creationist book. “We sincerely hope that the new Director of the Park Service now has the autonomy to do her job.”

    They have mounted a campaign:

    National Park Service employees from across the country who are concerned that Bush political appointees are taking our national parks in a new, dangerous direction have contacted PEER to ask for our assistance.

    In a series of recent decisions, the National Park Service has approved the display of religious symbols and Bible verses, as well as the sale of creationist books giving a biblical explanation for the Grand Canyon and other natural wonders.

    These moves all emanate from top Park Service political appointees over the objections of park superintendents, agency lawyers and scientists. A number of fundamentalist Christian and socially conservative groups are claiming credit for these actions and touting their new direct and personal access to Bush Administration officials.

    You can help today by signing on to PEER’s growing list of supporters who feel that religion should be separate from our National Park Service…and the Grand Canyon is a bit older than a mere few thousand years! Take Action Now

  11. RBH says

    On Infidels Joe Meert has posted a a link to what appears to be more information from the Park Service that contradicts what PEER is claiming:

    “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 2 billion year old Vishnu Schist at the bottom of the Inner Gorge to the 230 million year old Kaibab Limestone on the Rim.”