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Another plea to protect America’s parks publishes in September. Will this one resonate?

Grand Canyon for Sale: : Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change

Stephen Nash
University of California Press
2017
306 pp.
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Grand Canyon for Sale, by journalist Stephen Nash, is a wake-up call for anyone who cares about public lands, especially the U.S. national parks. In carefully reported detail, Nash describes the numerous threats faced by federally managed lands from organizations with various economic interests. Others have posed similar warnings, but Nash provides urgency to the argument by documenting how such threats are enhanced by climate change and may be aggravated by the apparent intentions of the Trump Administration.

Like many who will be drawn to this book, Nash loves the national parks. Within a few pages, in the span of a single paragraph, he refers to the Grand Canyon as a “sunken cathedral of rock” and a “fragile living realm,” immediately conveying the reverence he feels for the region. Readers who support conservation, protection, and restoration will appreciate the sincerity of his concerns.

Nash uses stories about the Grand Canyon as a stepping-off point for each chapter. These anecdotes—many of which are humorous, despite the book’s serious subject matter—lend a personal touch that draws the reader in. Each chapter is stocked with statistics and documentation, but Nash’s familiar style makes the book readable and engaging.

In researching and reporting this book, Nash interviewed an incredible array of relevant personnel, ranging from park superintendents and scientists to developers and ranchers. While discussing grazing policy, for example, he even interviewed members of the infamous Bundy family, whose 20-year legal dispute with the Bureau of Land Management came to a head in the form of an armed confrontation in 2014. These interviews are revealing and enlightening.

One can learn a great deal from Nash’s fact-filled prose; I found myself jotting down notes in each chapter. Did you know, for example, that 38% of visitors to the Grand Canyon are foreign citizens?

BENEDEK/ISTOCKPHOTO

Significant public opposition to a proposed dam in Marble Canyon led to the proposal’s demise in 1968.

More consequential, however, are the case studies Nash cites. With each, he describes how efforts to protect U.S. parks have been thwarted by organizations with deep pockets and by the politicians that are responsive to their pleas. For example, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) promised for years to reduce the noise from tour flights over the Grand Canyon. But in 2012, after considerable pressure from the U.S. Air Tour Association, McCain cosponsored legislation that took decision-making authority on flights away from the National Park Service. The result is that today, “Not a single location in the entire million-acre park is completely free of aircraft noise all the time.”

Criticisms in this book are not for the faint-hearted. Nash provides powerful reproaches of politicians from both parties, as well as federal agencies, including the National Park Service. In chapter 4, for instance, he offers a compelling indictment of the Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to ban lead bullets despite the scientific evidence of their devastating impact on condors.

Nash offers some recommendations—suggesting, for example, a “polluter-pays” type strategy for traders who import invasive species. However, he is more focused on sounding the alarm than on putting out the fires.

Nash does not cite the numerous books that have been warning about the influence of politics on parks for decades [e.g., (1–4)]. I make this point not to assuage my own or others’ egos but rather for two reasons. First, these works provide context and insight to some of Nash’s fundamental points. The second reason is even more fundamental. These earlier books also sought to serve as wake-up calls about the threats facing the national parks. The fact that this new book is compelling is a disturbing reminder that American policy-makers have been hitting snooze on this issue, so to speak, and that they continue to do so.

In the last chapter, Nash argues that the only way to ultimately protect our national treasures is for the public to demand that we do so. He points, for example, to the public outcry that successfully prevented the reopening of the Lost Orphan uranium mine in 2012. (Nash attributes the ban to the governor’s veto, but, ultimately, it was public disapproval that put an end to it.)

Americans have voted in favor of preserving public lands on three-quarters of the 2400 ballot measures that have come up for vote at the state and local level since 1988. It is clear that they care deeply for these spaces, but it is not always clear all the ways that these resources are being compromised. Nash’s book will certainly help with that.

References

  1. J. Freemuth, Islands Under Siege: National Parks and the Politics of External Threats (University of Kansas Press, Lawrence, KS, 1991)

  2. M. Frome. Regreening the National Parks (University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ, 1992)

  3. W. R. Lowry, The Capacity for Wonder: Preserving National Parks (Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC, 1995)

  4. A. Runte, National Parks: The American Experience (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 1979)

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Political Science, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO 63130, USA.

  • cactus ed

    The reviewer may be confusing the Canyon uranium mine with the Orphan Mine here: “He points, for example, to the public outcry that successfully prevented the reopening of the Lost Orphan uranium mine in 2012.” Also, Arizona’s governor has no veto power over decisions on USFS and BLM lands. There are several confusing statements introduced by the reviewer that may or may not be attributable to the book.