The making of Great Basin National Park.
The Great Basin is an enormous dish that covers 200,000 square miles and parts of a half-dozen states in the high desert. Its prodigious belly has been sliced, pushed, and cracked north to south to create scores, even hundreds, of mountain ranges, large and small. It occasionally offers up seashells, mammoth tusks, and a few fossilized bones of the giant ichthyosaur. Bordered by Oregon and Idaho's Columbia Plateau, California's Sierra Nevada and the Mojave Desert, the Colorado River Valley and Utah's Wasatch Range, the Great Basin also touches Wyoming and takes up virtually all of Nevada.
No water or river escapes from this basin and range, except by evaporation. And no one leaves its territory untouched, because the ancient country is brutal yet hauntingly beautiful.
High above the sagebrush of the valley floors, dozens of the Great Basin's mountain ranges soar higher than 10,000 feet, splashed with dark green carpets of fir, diamond-blue lakes, and jagged white slashes of ice. White Pine County's Wheeler Peak, between Ely and the Utah state line, looms above the Nevada desert at 13,063. In just a few square miles, this single mountain includes five distinct life zones normally found in the 3,000 miles between central Nevada and the Arctic Circle.
Almost all within the sound of a human voice, Wheeler Peak has sagebrush valley, cactus, wild rose, scorpion, prairie dog, jack rabbit, hawk, and rattlesnake. It has white fir, ponderosa pine, and the world's largest sweet-smelling mountain mahogany. It feeds Indian paintbrush, Douglas fir, pentstemon, mule deer, bobcat, bat, and mountain lion. Its aspen groves in fall splash about color that would impress a Vermonter. There are limber pine, eagle, Rocky Mountain bighorn, Alpine lake, and tundra. And above them all, the world's oldest living thing-the ancient and mighty, up-to-5,000-year-old tormented pine called bristlecone.
But even that's not all.
Hundreds of feet beneath the peak's eastern flanks are extraordinary natural sculptures named after Absalom S. Lehman. The rancher was chasing cattle in the spring of 1885 when he discovered a hole in the rock, but he was far from first to explore underground. Prehistoric settlements may have existed in Nevada 33,000 years before; bones found in the caves date back nearly a millennium.
Lehman Caves took an estimated 600 million years to become what they are today, each extraordinary hollow containing variations of stalactites, stalagmites, bacon strips, cave coral, shields, flowstone, and gravity-abusers called helictites. The damp and eerie chambers have names like Crystal Palace, Gothic Palace, and Cypress Swamp. With the flicker of a carbide lantern, their shapes and colors change (that is, those shapes left unharmed by souvenir hunters and graffiti dating from soon after Lehman's discovery. The caves were even used for square dances and picnics in the 1920s).
This tiny slice of the Great Basin is so very fragile that for more than six decades a few conservationists have been working hard to protect it. And for six decades, ever since legislation was first introduced for an 8,000-acre national park, their efforts have met with typical frontier resistance. Nevada's hard-headed miners and ranchers wanted to keep anything connected with the government a long way away from their back door. The new park hasn't changed the naysayers' attitude one bit. "Park people don't want one rock removed, and that mountain [Wheeler Peak] is not any different than any mountain between Denver and the Pacific Coast," a prominent local grumbled recently.
Many out-of-staters might agree. Neither Nevada's landscape nor its lifestyle has enjoyed a history of favorable comment around the country. Nevada was allowed statehood in 1864 only because her Senate votes were needed for the Civil War. Nevadans have traditionally condoned prostitution, gambling, and easy divorce. And partly because of dissent from Nevada's own voters, the politicians in Washington saw little point to a national park anyway. They did consent to creating the Lehman Caves National Monument in 1923.
In 1933, William Penn Mott, Jr., now director of the National Park Service, researched and prepared a paper for the NPS. Mott's documentation made a strong case for Wheeler Peak's and Lehman Caves' attributes as a full-fledged national park. His idea was chuckled at and shelved.
But it was not forgotten. In the mid-'5Os, local conservationists renewed the campaign following the discovery of what some claimed was the nation's southernmost glacier, situated in a cirque beneath the almost-vertical walls of Wheeler Peak. The discovery of the ice field-long known to locals as an unremarkable hunk of ice-was followed by the rediscovery of a 60-foot-tall limestone arch, 11 miles due south of the caverns.
By the late '50s, Nevada's congressional delegation was touting the Wheeler Peak area as worthy of national-park status. After a flurry of bill introductions into the early '60s, Wheeler Peak was reclassified as a National Scenic Area-recognition of the area's attractiveness, but not the full protection of its treasures that national-park status would bring.
To many Westerners, scenic-area status was not enough. Robert Starr Waite, a student from the University of California in Los Angeles, took up the cause. Eight years later, he had completed a 1,000-page dissertation on why the Wheeler Peak area should be fully protected. Waite, the son of an Ely schoolmarm married to a hard-rock miner, began a one-man campaign to protect the South Snake Range around Wheeler Peak. Using his own money as he held university positions at UCLA, Weber State, and Utah, he sent copies of his doctoral thesis to anyone he thought would help him. He lobbied the president, influential congressmen, and governors; he wrote letters to newspapers and magazines, to chambers of commerce and independent business-people; he gave lectures on the Great Basin story, including its geology, botany, history, and anthropology; he collected several thousand photographs and talked about them to any group willing to listen; he took students on field trips. And as the Ralph Nader of Great Basin National Park, he never forgot anyone's phone number.
Waite was such a pest that one park opponent proposed tarring and feathering him. In the '80s, miners and ranchers formed an anti-Waite and antipark coalition called "Free Enterprise Associates." "They flew to Washington to fight against me," Waite said. "They even hired a man to campaign from town to town, kind of the Billy Graham type, who was antipark. One rancher wrote a book about me and called it Hey, Waite a Minute."
Matters were no longer entirely in the hands of a few crusty miners and ranchers scattered among the sagebrush, however. Down at the southern tip of the state, less than a day's drive from Wheeler, Las Vegas had been experiencing a phenomenal period of growth. Its metro area had burst beyond its casino-and-nightclub reputation to become a Sunbelt metropolis of nearly 600,000, more than 60 percent of Nevada's population. And the huddled suburban masses of Las Vegas had discovered the bucolic attractions of the nearby-by western standards-Wheeler Peak Scenic Area.
In 1983, the congressman from Las Vegas, Harry Reid, began a serious drive to obtain national recognition for this "backyard" of Las Vegas. By 1985, members of the House Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands had come to the state with the Nevada congressional delegation and met on the very slopes of Wheeler Peak. That November congressmen held open hearings in Ely to discuss the feasibility of a national park. The committee members were impressed enough with the area, the local support, and testimony from Waite and others to propose a 175,000-acre "Great Basin National Park."
Diehard frontiersmen now gathered for a last stand: a handful of ranchers who feared they would lose grazing privileges; a half-dozen mining companies appalled by a possible cutoff of their exploratory rights; and assorted recreationists, hunters, and fishermen. Under the pressure of their outcry, several Nevada politicians made up their minds to be firmly uncommitted. Reid's bill died in the Senate, and alternative versions began to lose their way in the Washington legislative labyrinth.
Though the outcry was noisy, the sounds came from very few. A Nevada Division of State Parks survey showed 84 percent of all Nevadans in favor of the park. (Ninety percent of those surveyed in greater Las Vegas wanted the park; only half of the cowboys and miners in the barely populated eastern parts of the state closest to Wheeler Peak were in favor.)
"The park numbers are slanted," said George Swallow, who has lived in Ely since his family sold the Swallow Ranch near Wheeler Peak in 1948. "Our survey showed that 90 percent were opposed to the park." Swallow's survey included only McGill and Ruth, desolate mining to boomed and then gone bust because of the price of copper. "Most people around here were opposed to it because it would eventually do away with the ranching business," he explained. "It would do away with hunting. It would stop any timber activity. It would exclude free access to that entire mountain to explore and locate mining claims."
Free Enterprise Associates collected more than 2,000 signatures of persons opposed to the park and sent them to the chairman of the subcommittee in Washington, D.C. "The committee wouldn't even pay any attention to them," Swallow said. "It cost us $4,000 to have 100 copies made, but they wouldn't distribute them. After the hearing they shipped them back to us collect!"
After years of bickering, and after the raised voices were finally counted, Nevada congressional reluctance fadedaway. A compromise became essential. A deal was made and a vote taken on October 9, 1986. The House and the Senate approved a 77,000acre park. A presidential signature on October 27 made Great Basin the first national park in 15 years; it was the country's 49th, Nevada's first--and due to lack of space and cash, it may be the last. "If it hadn't got to the floor that day," Waite said later, "that bill would have gone in the trash can."
The final Great Basin bill included some peculiar terms, such as mining and cattle grazing within the park's borders, in perpetuity. Unique stuff for a national park. Yet the ranchers still weren't happy, even with their cows roaming the South Snake Range. "People pressure can change the law," said Emerson Gonder, whose family has ranched in Snake Valley for five generations. "Regardless of the way it's written, there's always some way it's possible to change it."
The miners weren't happy, either, even though they could continue working any claims staked before the legislation. "It's not a good deal for us," Swallow I believe we'll be moved out of the park entirely within 8 to 20 years, and it'll be just like all the other parks."
But in Ely, 67 miles west of the park, the naysayers were coming around. When the local Kennecott mine had closed a decade before, a victim of international price wars, their town had become easily the most depressed in the state. Twenty-five percent of the town's population got up and left by the early '80s-and unemployment was still 23 percent. Forsale signs dotted the landscape, and many of the small trailers and clapboard houses had become dilapidated. But by 1986, things were looking up.
Within a year after Wheeler Peak's change in status, tourism (1987 over 1986) had increased at the park by 57 percent overall and by 119 percent on Labor Day weekend; official room-tax figures showed that Ely's motel traffic had increased by 22 percent; and the traffic on Highway 50, the nearest major highway to the park and Life magazine's "Loneliest Road in America," was up by 35 percent. "The increase represents 25,000 additional tourists," said Ferrel Hansen, the executive vice president of the White Pine Chamber of Commerce. "There's no doubt the park is good for Ely."
Not according to the mining interests. "A lot of that was oil exploration and mining activity around here," Swallow said. "Last year was Ely's centennial, and they had Railroad Days and that sort of thing. We don't think traffic increased because of the park."
The residents of Baker, the tiny town that sits five miles east of park headquarters, have learned to live with the change. "Most of the folks around here were opposed to it," said Reita Berger, who owns Baker's Outlaw Bar with her husband, Chuck. "We were afraid some camper would set fire to the mountain we've been taking care of for years. We were afraid that the fragile environment would be damaged by all the people. We came out here to get away from it all. Now we're closest to it."
Berger chuckles when she counts the bureaucrats and developers wandering in and out of Ely and Baker these days, talking about solving Baker's problems. "Right now the hassle is over water and sewer," she says. "With a town of 22 houses and 80 people we really can't afford a water or a sewer system, but that's what they're talking about!"
Emerson Gonder remembers a time when he and his family got to town only twice a year, either 138 miles by oil road to Cedar City or 250 miles to Salt Lake. He has forgotten why there's been a feud between Garrison, Utah, and neighboring Baker, Nevada, for more than a hundred years. But he knows that when workers were hired on the family ranch it was tough to keep people out there.
"It's hard at first," he says. "Some of the tourists say, 'My God, what is there to see; how do you people live?' We like it because it's isolated and quiet, but it scares them. We see little things that grow on the desert, the little flowers, little animals, insects, and little reptiles that people don't notice."
Taxpayers and tourists may not agree about insects and reptiles, but they can appreciate that they weren't stuck with a giant bill: the park land already belonged to the Federal government. Out-of-staters, surprised by the "other" Nevada, agree with William Penn Mott, Jr., who called Great Basin at its formal dedication in 1987 "a jewel in the crown of the national parks."
For Dr. Robert Starr Waite, a quarter century of crusading was vindicated by the park's creation. "People respect a national park," he said. "I wanted to save a part of the Great Basin and do something great for America." In February 1988 Utah legislators proclaimed him the "Father of Great Basin National Park."
And Nevadans don't worry about the teacher from Utah, because they finally have something to brag about that doesn't involve cherries, bordellos, or greenbacks. After six decades the time was right, and most citizens were happy keeping their pride and frontier spirit alive with a park whose rules-as usual-didn't apply to the rest of the world.
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|Title Annotation:||it took nature 25 million years, Congress 66 to create it|
|Publication:||Saturday Evening Post|
|Date:||Jul 1, 1988|
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