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Grand Canyon: legal battleground?



The Blue Angel Trail along the Grand Canyon

Two days ago Dr. Andrew A. Snelling, of Answers in Genesis USA, sued the U.S. Interior Department. He accuses them, and more particularly the National Park Service, of abridging his Constitutional rights. Specifically, he sought to study key features of the Grand Canyon. And the Park Service will not let him. The case arises from a plain case of scientific obscurantism. But this time the evolutionists, not any creationists, are obscuring the facts.

The complaint

Snelling’s lawyers, Michael Kitchen of Margrave Celmins PC and Gary McCaleb of Alliance Defending Freedom, filed the complaint. ADF released this statement the same day (9 May 2017). Sarah Kramer of ADF also left this blog entry describing the case. One day later, Bob Unruh of WorldNetDaily left this account. In it he asked whether the “grand illusion” concerning the Grand Canyon would soon lose its credence.

Only by reading the complaint can one grasp the legal and moral issues at stake. In it, Dr. Snelling’s lawyers give the details.

In November of 2013, Dr. Snelling applied for permission to study folding sedimentary structures, from the Paleozoic group of strata. He sought to collect up to sixty half-pound samples from four places in the Grand Canyon. Dr. Snelling had already reserved several Colorado River rafting trips between April and July 2014 to collect the samples.

Everything went fine, until Ronda Newton, the Research Permitting Coordinator, asked for two peer reviews of his research proposal. Dr. Snelling had applied for and gotten permits for earlier research in the Grand Canyon. She asked for these in February of 2014. No one had ever asked for peer reviews of his proposals before. Still, he found three scientists willing to review his proposal.

So then Ms. Newton sent the application materials to two evolutionists. That act started all the trouble.

Two ringers and an empty suit

Karl Karlstrom, PhD, is a professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of New Mexico. In January of 2014 he had published, in the journal Nature, his own article on the Grand Canyon. In it he said the Grand Canyon formed five to six million years ago, when several older structures linked up. Thus he himself broke with convention, which says the Grand Canyon formed 70 million years ago.

One would suppose Dr. Karlstrom would gladly take an interest in a proposal that the Grand Canyon was younger still. Not so. The science did not seem to pose a problem. But Dr. Snelling’s religious views did. So also did the views of the three earlier peer reviewers. Then Dr. Karlstrom suggested to let Dr. Snelling take his samples somewhere else—without saying where else.

Dr. Huntoon gives the game away

Ms. Newman could and should have asked Dr. Karlstrom to clarify the “somewhere else.” She did not. Instead she sent the application to another professor, Peter Huntoon, PhD, of the University of Wyoming. Dr. Huntoon at least had studied those same Paleozoic folds that Dr. Snelling wanted to sample.

Whereas Dr. Karlstrom had made an effort to sound reasonable, Dr. Huntoon did not. He couldn’t get past the creation advocacy angle. He wrote:

[It] is not a question of fairness to all points of view, but rather adherence to your narrowly defined institution mandate predicated in part on the fact that ours is a secular society as per our constitution.

In other words, the National Park Service should never approve any research that questions the secular model of Earth origins. That statement alone shows that science, and especially origins science, are not value-free. Anyone who still thinks so, should ask Dr. Huntoon. Then he specifically suggested the Park Service should deny permits to people representing interests he deemed inappropriate. If his earlier statement did not make his bias abundantly clear, this did.

Any truly objective official should have thrown out Dr. Huntoon’s report on its face. No scientist ever speaks of another as “representing inappropriate interests.” Unless said scientist is an origins scientist, or a dedicated global-warming alarmist. Then he or she does it all the time. Dr. Huntoon set the prize example. And Ms. Newton? She accepted that report, because it told her what she wanted to hear. For good measure, Dr. Huntoon told Ms. Newton more of the same in an e-mail. “Reviewing is fine,” said he, “just not processing the dead-end creationist material.”

The empty suit

Ms. Newton then sought an opinion from Dr. Ron Blakely of North Arizona University. And he said only that “it is difficult to review such an outlandish proposal.” What was so outlandish? What did he find outlandish? Dr. Blakely never said.

The Park Service denies the permit

On 4 March 2014, the Park Service denied the permit. Martha Hahn, Chief of the Science and Resource Management Research Office, wrote the denial. She said only,

it has been determined that equivalent examples of soft-sediment folds can be found outside of Grand Canyon National Park.

Where outside the Grand Canyon? Dr. Snelling asked Mss. Newman and Hahn again and again where to find those “equivalent examples.” And they did not even bother to return his telephone calls. Nor could they, in all honesty, have told him anything different from what he had already found out. To wit: he couldn’t find any “equivalent examples” anywhere except in the Grand Canyon.

Ms. Hahn wanted to make sure Dr. Snelling would not take his samples anyway. So she warned him the Park Service would never let him do research in any National Park if he did. Not only that, but Ms. Newton suggested that Ms. Hahn alert two other persons to watch out for Dr. Snelling or other “folks like this” on the Colorado River.

Dr. Snelling re-files

So Dr. Snelling missed his opportunity. But, trying to be reasonable, he re-filed on 8 February 2016. This time he proposed to collect only forty samples. He also answered every concern Dr. Karlstrom and others had raised. (Remember: at least Dr. Karlstrom did address the science to some extent.)

Again the Park Service delayed the application. This time they demanded more details on the site locations. Dr. Snelling did specify his sampling locations with margins of 100 feet. Other researchers should specify sampling sites with such precision.

Dr. Snelling waited to hear back from the Park Service. And waited. And waited.

Curiously, he did get a permit, but not to take the samples. Instead he must make a dry run to take pictures and get on-site GPS coordinates for every sample site. The Park Service sent the permit on 25 April 2016, but dated it 15 July 2016. The Park Service has never before demanded that any researcher do that kind of dry-run recon. Even the research guidelines for the Grand Canyon do not demand anything remotely like this. Naturally, Dr. Snelling refused. And on 5 July 2016, Ms. Newman (see above) sent an e-mail refusing any sampling permit.

Refusal to answer

Finally, on 22 December 2016, Dr. Snelling called his lawyers. They wrote straight to Christine Lehnertz, the Superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park. In their letter they set forth the legal issues the delay raised. Alliance Defending Freedom have done this before, in three other cases that involve the Grand Canyon.

Believe it or not, Ms. Lehnertz did not answer the letter or even say whether she got it. Dr. Snelling’s lawyers sent another letter on 31 January 2017, with the same lack of result. On 31 March 2017, Representative Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) wrote to Ms. Lehnertz, asking her to grant the permit. She ignored the congressman also.

The issues go beyond the Grand Canyon

Most of these acts took place during the Obama administration. All that has happened during the Trump administration, is refusal to answer letters. Still, the complaint cites Donald Trump’s specific Executive Order on religious freedom.

Dr. Snelling alleges five causes of action:

  1. Abridgment of his freedom of speech, by denying a permit for scientific investigation on obviously specious grounds. The actual grounds amount to viewpoint discrimination. To prove this, Dr. Snelling has the correspondence of Drs. Karlstrom, Blakely, and especially Huntoon.
  2. Interference with the free exercise of his religion, by the same act and on the same grounds.
  3. Denying him due process of law.
  4. Denying him the equal protection of the law.
  5. Breaking the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Scientific process issues

The scientific issues should concern any intellectually honest scientist. Evolutionists always call what they are doing “science,” and what creation advocates do, “pseudoscience.” They point to “statements of faith” like that from Answers in Genesis, while denying they subscribe to any similar statements. Yet three scientists have criticized Dr. Snelling on the grounds of his religious faith. Of the three, only Dr. Karlstrom raised any scientific concerns anyone might call legitimate. (Dr. Snelling answers those concerns.) The other two have disgraced themselves, their discipline, and the entire community of scientists.

Dr. Huntoon has given the worst offense. How dare he deem any avenue of scientific inquiry “inappropriate”? What does he fear? Could he fear that Dr. Snelling might develop evidence challenging the moral foundations of “our…secular society”?

But Dr. Huntoon actually gives a typical offense against religious and academic freedom. He illustrates the intellectual corruption of origins science today. His type of “investigator” doesn’t want to investigate, but to shut down any investigation of the fundamental question of origins. That question is: did the universe, this earth, and life come to exist over billions of years, or mere thousands? Maybe this explains why no one ever accepted the Walter T. Brown Written Debate Challenge.

Worse even than Dr. Huntoon’s attitude, is that of Mss. Newman, Hahn, and Lehnertz. In no other context, and under no other circumstances, would anyone in their positions accept the kind of petty, puerile, and spiteful objections Dr. Huntoon raised. They would mention him, if at all, only to condemn him. Instead Ms. Newman sought him out for the exact kind of opinion he gave. Her colleagues went along with this. That such persons remain in government employ, should concern anyone who cares about freedom of religion or scientific inquiry.

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Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.

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