100 years of the Grand Canyon National Park

On cloudy days, the shadows cast over the Grand Canyon create intricate patterns of light and shadow. The Grand Canyon was formed over millions of years and is still changing, Feb. 1. Photo by Joseph Whitney

As Grand Canyon National Park prepares to celebrate its centennial anniversary Feb. 26, experts urge members of the public to reflect on the past 100 years of Grand Canyon history and to look forward to a more sustainable future for the park.

Despite the positive changes brought to the Grand Canyon by the National Park Service, Roger Clark, the Grand Canyon Trust’s program director, along with Sarana Riggs, the Trust’s program manager, said there are still many problems within and surrounding the park’s lands.

“A lot of people think that because [the canyon] was designated as a national park back in 1919 everything’s hunky dory, but, in fact, threats to the park continue to this day, and many of those threats occur outside park boundaries,” Clark said.

Be it air pollution, elevated mercury levels in fish, invasive species damaging the land or the imminent threat of uranium mining, Clark said the ecological health of the Grand Canyon is constantly at risk.

Riggs is a member of the Navajo Nation and an indigenous rights activist. She said she’s most concerned with the longstanding history of negligence by Park Service staff toward people native to canyon lands — people to whom the canyon is so important.

“We noticed there was a lack of indigenous voices from each of the tribal nations that call the Grand Canyon home,” Riggs said. “When the national park was established, boundaries were laid and many [indigenous] people were forced out. Things weren’t the way they were supposed to be.”

Before the national park was established in 1919, there were many corporations dedicated to depleting the canyon’s natural resources and beauty. According to Sean Evans, a resident archivist at NAU, the establishment of the national park served as an effective preventative measure for the overdevelopment of the scenic and historic site.

Evans works in the Cline Library Special Collections office, which currently houses an exhibit compiled primarily by NAU student interns. The exhibit highlights the history of the Grand Canyon and commemorates the centennial of the national park. Evans said the establishment of the park was a crucial moment in the history of the canyon.

“The NPS, I believe, represents to most people one thing our government does well,” Evans said. “[The U.S. government] stepped in at a point when a lot of people were establishing businesses at the canyon’s edge and said, ‘Wait a minute, this belongs to everyone. We want to preserve [the canyon] in ways that are respectful to nature and history.’”

Robyn Martin, a senior lecturer from the NAU Honors College, said she believes that one of the most significant improvements brought by the establishment of the national park was an increased level of accessibility for park tourists.

“Now we have hiking, running rim to rim, mountain biking, rafting and all kinds of activities,” Martin said. “Participating in those activities within the canyon was unheard of until the mid-20th century.”

Clark said outdoor adventure activities have become astoundingly popular at the canyon thanks to systems put in place by the NPS. He said that without the canyon’s establishment as a national park nearly 100 years ago, much more of the land in that region would be at severe risk. Many destructive practices such as mining and logging are no longer allowed within park boundaries due to regulations put in place by the agency.

Another notable installment by the NPS is that of an on-site search and rescue team. Martin and Clark said the implementation of safety systems like these have made the canyon much safer to explore.

Furthermore, Clark said the agency attempts to educate tourists about the canyon’s history and ecological significance. The NPS provides talented interpreters that convey these concepts to visitors from around the world.

“Grand Canyon interpretive programs provide some of the most engaging learning anywhere on the planet,” Clark said. “I think the Grand Canyon is the greatest classroom in the world.”

Despite the helpful programs employed by the service, Riggs and Clark both noted that the voices of those indigenous to the region haven’t been heard regarding many issues concerning canyon lands.

Riggs said the Grand Canyon Trust has prompted ongoing conversations between intertribal groups and the park service in order to address the issue of negligence and to promote indigenous involvement in the park’s decision-making processes. Riggs also said the centennial celebration will present opportunities to reflect on the past treatment of indigenous people and to brainstorm ways in which native and park relations can be improved.

“We’re looking at the past, the present and what’s going to happen in the future,” Riggs said. “We’re looking at ways to address [these issues] with everybody at the table, not just those in leadership. We’re at the point where we’ve developed a plan of cooperation and we’ve presented it to the park service. Surprisingly, they’re listening, they’re interested and they acknowledge there’s a lack of communication.”

Activists like Riggs and Clark encourage people to view the centennial as a day of contemplation, rather than simply a day of celebration.

“Some people see [the centennial] as an event to celebrate. I don’t think that’s how I’m looking at it,” Clark said. “The centennial is more of a time to reflect, contemplate and think about where we want to be 100 years from now. A century is nothing geologically, or to the people who lived here before. Those people are celebrating millennia in terms of their relationship to the land.”

By February 2119, on the park’s 200th anniversary, many hope the national park will have an even better story to tell than it does now. With newly inclusive conversations forming about the canyon’s ecology, history and cultural significance, activists like Clark feel a brighter future for the park may lie ahead.