A rift at the Grand Canyon

How old is the Grand Canyon? Most scientists agree with the version that rangers at Grand Canyon National Park tell visitors: that the 10-mile chasm in northern Arizona was carved by the Colorado River 5 million to 6 million years ago.

Now, however, a book in the park's bookstores tells another story. On sale since last summer, Grand Canyon: A Different View, by veteran Colorado River guide Tom Vail, asserts that the Grand Canyon was formed by the Old Testament flood, the one Noah's Ark survived, and can be no older than a few thousand years.


The book includes essays from creationist scientists and theologians. Vail wrote in the introduction, "For years, as a Colorado River guide I told people how the Grand Canyon was formed over the evolutionary time scale of millions of 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."

Reaction to the book has been sharply divided. The American Geological Institute and seven geo-science organizations sent letters to the park and to agency officials calling for the book to be removed.


In part to appease some outraged Grand Canyon employees, the book was moved from the natural sciences section to the inspirational reading section of park bookstores.

"I've had reactions from the staff all over the board on it," says Deputy Superintendent Kate Cannon. "There were certainly people on the interpretive staff that were upset by it. Respect of visitors' views is imperative, but we do urge our interpreters to give scientifically correct information."

Park Service spokesman David Barna, who is based in Washington, says each park determines which products are sold in its bookstores and gift shops. The creationist book at the Grand Canyon was unanimously approved by a panel of park and gift shop personnel.

But the book's status at the park is still in question. Joe Alston, the Grand Canyon superintendent, has sought guidance from Park Service headquarters in Washington.

Meanwhile, the book has sold out and is being reordered.

The flap at the Grand Canyon highlights what officials say is a problem for the national park system: how to respect visitors' spiritual views that may directly contradict the agency's accepted scientific presentations and maintain the necessary division of church and state.

"We struggle. Creationism vs. science is a big issue at some places," says Deanne Adams, the Park Service's chief of interpretation for the Pacific Region.

Adams says the questions arise most often at Western parks where geology is highlighted. He singles out the John Day Fossil Beds Monument in southern Oregon as a place where scientifically determined dates have been challenged.


"We like to acknowledge that there are different viewpoints, but we have to stick with the science. That's our training," Adams says. She says there is no federal guideline for how to answer religious inquiries. "Every fundamentalist or Christian group has a take on how they interpret the Bible. They are entitled to believe whatever they believe. It's not our job to change their minds."

Last summer, the Park Service ordered the reinstatement of three plaques bearing Bible verses that were erected at Grand Canyon National Park in 1970 by a group called the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary. Alston called for their removal last summer after a complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Park Service Deputy Director Donald Murphy, who ran the California state parks department under former Gov. Pete Wilson, ordered the brass plaques to be returned and sent the group a letter apologizing for "any intrusion."

The plaques are affixed to buildings at Hermits Rest, Lookout Studio and Desert View Tower, all popular tourist stops along the South Rim. They quote verses from the Book of Psalms, including "Sing to God, sing praises to His name, lift up a song to Him who rides upon the clouds. His name is the Lord, exult before Him!"

Barna says Deputy Director Murphy overruled the Grand Canyon superintendent because he and the agency's regional attorney were not sufficiently well versed in constitutional law.

"We contend that our superintendent knows a lot about wilderness protection but not enough about separation of church and state," Barna says. Critics say that by condoning religious material in the park, the federal government is endorsing a particular spiritual point of view.


"The Bush administration appears to be sponsoring a program of faith-based parks," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of the nonprofit group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

"Any time a question arises, the professionals and lawyers are reversed and being told to respect the displays of religious symbols. We believe the actions by these officials violate their oath of office to defend the Constitution."

Yet religion and geology are intertwined in many parks and monuments that are dotted with shrines and various sites sacred to Native Americans who are often afforded special access to worship.

Nor are spiritual references absent. Indeed, viewed from the Grand Canyon's popular Bright Angel Trail are rock formations named by 19th-century explorers after Hindu deities, such as Vishnu.

Some scholars say they have no objection to books that offer religious interpretations of the parks, providing they are not marketed as science.

Historian Stephen J. Pyne, whose book, How the Canyon Became Grand, is on sale in the bookstores, says he doesn't mind if Vail's book is sold at the park, as long as it's not in the science section.


"I have not read the book, but I'm familiar with the genre," Pyne says. "I think the Park Service would be remiss if it did not explain that there is not an agreed-upon story about the canyon, that there are conflicting stories. But science assumes it was not formed by a great flood or divine intervention. What this creationists' group is looking for is some sort of validation by the Park Service. There's an agenda there."

Not so, says an official of the organization that published Vail's book, the San Diego-based Institute for Creation Research. Steven Austin, who heads ICR's geology department, says he worked with Vail on the book. Like Vail, Austin thinks the oldest parts of the gorge are no older than 10,000 years. Vail himself could not be reached for comment.

"We have a secular presentation at the Grand Canyon, and we don't want to suppress other ways of thinking," Austin says. "But there needs to be room for more than one interpretation."

George Billingsley, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, has been studying the Grand Canyon for 36 years and says scientists have never agreed about the exact age of the canyon, although most concur that the oldest formations are nearly 2 billion years old. A scientific symposium held in 2000 to resolve the question of how the canyon was formed dissolved in acrimony and adjourned without consensus, he says.

As far as the creationist theory, Billingsley says, "If someone presented that theory to me, I'd say you gotta have proof. You have to have some kind of mechanism to show what you say happened. I don't know how to argue with someone like that. But as far as putting the book in the bookstore, that's fine. That's the freedoms we have. Everyone has to make up their own mind.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.