Losing the Grand Canyon: Five Questions for Stephen Nash

It might seem absurd to think that anything as big and iconic as Grand Canyon National Park could ever be lost. Stephen Nash, a journalist and visiting senior research scholar at the University of Richmond in Virginia, says the threat is all too real.

In his book, “Grand Canyon For Sale: Public Land versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change,” Nash argues that even if the rocks of the canyon survive, the park is more than a geologic formation — it’s the sum of the plants, animals, water, air, and even the solitude of the place that make it special. And all of that is threatened, Nash writes, by political pressure to sell off nearby resources like water, timber, mining, and cattle ranching. Although Nash specifically examines Grand Canyon National Park, he traces how these threats can be seen across all of America’s public lands, most of which are much less protected than national parks.

These threats are only exacerbated by climate change. Many species will need to migrate north, where they will be forced to navigate the cattle, mining, drilling, and off-road vehicles increasingly found on public lands in order to reach cooler temperatures and survive.

For this installment of the Undark Five, we asked Nash about the myriad threats to America’s public lands, and how a book about science and the Grand Canyon became concerned with Washington politics. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.

Undark: What made you want to write a book that focused on the Grand Canyon?

Stephen Nash: The original idea was to do what I had done before, which is to take a look at a locale that is important to me and ask, “What are all of the environmental pressures that are threatening this place, impinging on this place, or changing this place?”

One thing that became apparent was that, while there are lots of different environmental issues to talk about in the Grand Canyon, climate change really trumps a lot of those other issues. The other thing was that, it doesn’t make much sense to look at just this boundaried place. You want to look further than just Grand Canyon to the whole National Park system, because all of the challenges that face that fantastic place are also working themselves out in somewhat similar ways in every national park. Put those two ideas together, climate change and every national park, and suddenly you’ve tumbled forward into an even bigger story, which is public lands.

Climate change is pushing all the living things in Grand Canyon and every other national park, either upward, or more commonly, northward, because if they’re going to survive at all, they’re going to have to find cooler climates. It’s not a perfect way to think about this, but it’s as if the park’s life was having to pack its bags and move north because the park itself, climatologically, is moving south. And that’s true everywhere.

These days, I think finding solutions is part of the story that I want to tell — that there is something to be done about all of this. What there is to be done about a place like Grand Canyon is to preserve the pathways through which migration might occur. If all of that is busted up — if it is all in private hands, if it is all given over to other uses of human industry — then the migration isn’t going to work.

UD: One of those uses is cattle ranching on public land. You spend four chapters in the book examining that. Did the full range of impacts surprise you?

SN: It sure did. I’ve driven those interstate highways through the West for most of my life and I’d see an occasional munching cow out on the landscape. It always seemed to me like a good thing that an animal — a useful animal — can make a living out there, and obviously some human is making a living out there. It’s not.

Because that landscape is so dry, it’s fragile if you begin to steal its water, because the plant life has to make use of that water. If you begin to eat the plant life — and cows have prodigious appetites — than it’s no longer available for the huge amount of wildlife that’s out there. Ecologists say that that dry, empty-looking landscape is a fabulously rich ecosystem.

If you’re grazing cattle there, they’re using huge amounts of water, the landscape has to be engineered to deliver that water to them. They’re trampling the soil and the very delicate biological crusts on the soil, breaking it up and making it available for erosion. So, you’re really beating up the landscape, and each of those cows is competing with a range of important animals, including insects, and just displacing them entirely.

This all takes place over 328,000 square miles of public land. That’s a lot. Cattle are munching their way through the future prospects for that enormous area. Cows are an enormous part of the Grand Canyon story, even though there aren’t cattle in Grand Canyon.

UD: Is there anything that has happened since the book has come out that you would want to update?

SN: For me one of the reporting problems was, I don’t know who controls that landscape. I can’t tell from the outside whether it’s a bunch of guys on horses with cowboy hats just eking out a living or what, but there had been hints in the reporting earlier that some pretty wealthy folks had grazing leases from the government. Once you get one of these leases, it’s more like a property right than a rental agreement between you and me.

What I found was that these ownerships were concentrated in very few hands. It isn’t the photogenic ranchers who control most of that property, it’s a very few enormous corporate entities and enormously wealthy individuals. If I were starting over what I would be updating is the interplay between public lands and the resources that we own, but that a few wealthy individuals control, and our political system is carrying out the wishes of those kinds of folks for how our land is being used.

UD: In the book, you keep coming back to this idea of money in politics as the real problem. Can you talk a bit more about that and what your proposed solutions are?

SN: Yeah, in a book about the environment of the Grand Canyon, it seems extraneous to slide on over into discussions of campaign finance and our corrupted political system. I tried to make the case that it’s not extraneous at all. That that’s exactly the locus of a lot of decisions that affect the Grand Canyon.

I wanted to direct my readers attentions to the solutions that are inherent in a democracy. We really can do something about that part of the story, and in the course of fixing campaign finance problems and the influence of money in politics, we can do good things for public lands and good things for the Grand Canyon.

Let’s take those mining corporations that I wrote about, and the extremely wealthy ranching operations that I wrote about, and the fossil fuel corporations and individuals, and let’s connect them into the political system by talking about the amount of money that they contribute to political campaigns to make sure that the candidates who think of the world as they do win elections.

That’s the campaign finance angle. The decisions about public lands, about national parks and national forests and the uses that we’re going to put them to — those decisions are made by the officials who are in effect chosen by the corporations and the multimillionaires and billionaires who can contribute campaign money.

UD: Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club called your book a “call to action” during your recent talk at the Cambridge Forum. Would it be fair to say that you’re advocating for something in this book?

SN: Yeah, it is a call to action. I was pleased to hear him say that. I don’t specify very well what that action should be — I think anybody who can wade through this book is well equipped with a few key strokes to find out some good places to fit in and begin the process of thinking about that.

The book is advocacy. It’s advocacy on not just a whimsical basis — it’s advocacy [based] on what a whole lot of scientists and their research are telling us about what is happening and where that’s going, and then some ideas about what to do about it.

Ian Evans is a freelance journalist covering science and the environment. His work has appeared in Undark, FiveThirtyEight, Pacific Standard, and Nautilus, among other places.