Prior to New Years', there was a flurry of alarm across the "reality-based" neck of the blogosphere when the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) put out a press release with two outrageous complaints: that National Park Service employees at Grand Canyon National Park were not permitted to discuss the scientific age of the Grand Canyon with visitors, and that the bookstore at the National Park had been selling a book espousing the story that the canyon was created by the biblical Noah's flood for three years and had never conducted a promised review of the decision to carry the book.
Think Progress, Pharyngula, and Bad Astronomy Blog, to pick a few of the more prominent blogs, pointed to this story in outrage. Now, some inquiries by National Parks Traveler and Park Ranger X strongly suggest that the first, and most outrageous, allegation is false. Park Ranger X excerpts part of the official response from the National Park Service:
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.
Park Ranger X adds, "I've emailed a few of my contacts at GRCA, and so far, all deny any conspiracy and all freely give the canyon's age in education programs."
There appears to be nothing for the reality-based community to object to here. Indeed, if the NPS were not allowed to give an "official" response about the age of the canyon, why would there be a prominently linked page of "frequently asked questions" at the official Grand Canyon National Park website that includes the following:
How old is the Canyon?
That's a tricky question. Although rocks exposed in the walls of the canyon are geologically quite old, the Canyon itself is a fairly young feature. The oldest rocks at the canyon bottom are close to 2000 million years old. The Canyon itself - an erosional feature - has formed only in the past five or six million years. Geologically speaking, Grand Canyon is very young.
PEER's first complaint appears completely unwarranted. The second complaint, about the selling of the creationist book, while more substantive, is perhaps overblown, as National Parks Traveler explains by comparing the creationist book to other books, also sold at national parks, containing Native American lore about the formation of geologic features.
A more compelling complaint than this would be about a recent dumbing-down of interpretive exhibits at popular national parks. On New Year's, Pharyngula excerpted a letter to Science magazine from a recent visitor to the canyon from late 2005 that reads:
The modern visitor center [at Grand Canyon National Park] 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."
Along these lines, the official Grand Canyon National Park website also appears to have been diluted of much of its hard, scientific info at some point. Compare the current "Natural Features and Ecosystems" page, which consists of a mere four paragraphs (two quite short), to an archived version I found using their search engine, which is split up into ten sub-sections on various topics, of which the "Geologic Features" page alone contains seven detailed paragraphs.
Bush's NPS is apparently making it harder for visitors to learn about the detailed natural history of our nation's wonders. This needs to be corrected.