Great Basin National Park was born compromised.
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
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."
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
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."
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
"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
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.