Established in 1986, the park covers 120 square miles of the Snake Range, centered on Wheeler Peak near the border of Nevada and Utah.
It is a premier example of a Great Basin range that seems to float above a sea of sagebrush. But to the chagrin of many of the park's most ardent fans, cows still graze in the meadows and aspen groves below the glacier-carved summit.
Teddy Roosevelt made the Snake Range part of the first national forest in Nevada in 1909. Since then, mining, ranching, commercial tourism, and the federal government have played tug-of-war with the body and soul of what is now the park. Lehman Caves, a spectacular grotto at the base of the mountain that contains one of the most diverse collections of limestone formations in the world, was designated a national monument in 1922.
In the mid-1980s, Harry Reid, then a congressman and now a senator, argued a national park would help the public see that Nevada is not a wasteland and contribute to economic development through increased tourism. Reid had to compromise with ranchers; he told them grazing would continue in the new park.
The compromise has not worked. Since Great Basin National Park was put on the map, staff have been inundated with complaints.
"I'm always chagrined to get letters saying: "What are you doing allowing cows to graze in a national park?" " says park supervisor Al Hendricks. "It's not us. We didn't write the laws."
Hendricks was relieved of the problem when he was transferred to a cow-free park. But it is still a sore point for park staff, who are supposed to interpret grazing as a historical use of the land. Instead, they have been talking with Sen. Reid about getting rid of the cows.
Reid says he never believed there should be grazing in the park. He is trying to raise private and federal money to buy out grazing permits in the park.
Dean Baker, the park's largest grazing permittee, says he is willing to sell his permits. He acknowledges that "the park has a tremendous problem with grazing. It's putting a square peg into a round hole for them. Their heart hasn't been in it," he says. "And since they have a problem, we have a problem."
But Baker is bitter about the failure of the compromise and fatalistic about its larger significance. "Grazing was written into the park as a historical use," he says. "It's the law of the land. It was good enough to be a national park with grazing. And it's good grazing."
Baker believes that what is happening in the park does not bode well for a larger compromise on grazing. "Environmentalists say the same thing about grazing in general that they say about grazing in the park: it's of no value for people. I think it's all very sad. I'm really pessimistic.
"When you follow the whole sequence forward, we would take this ranch and we would sell the water to Las Vegas because that's the value," he says. "Essentially you go over one hill and it's all downhill from here. And that dries up the ranch and wildlife and we grow condominiums. I'm not saying we'll do that. But that's the natural sequence. That's the ultimate goal of anti-grazing. And that's a crime against nature."
For all the worries and tension about increased tourism, development and the end of grazing, nothing changes very fast around Great Basin National Park. There are plans to buy out the grazing permits, build a new visitor center for the park, and a new water system for the tiny gateway town of Baker. But all await federal funding, which will likely require more political compromises.
Meanwhile, the number of visitors is down from when Great Basin National Park first opened. And cows will be grazing in the park again this summer.