While traveling overland from Salt Lake City to San Francisco in October 1860, the explorer Richard Burton stopped in what is now eastern Nevada and wrote of the Great Basin, “In this season the scenery is really pretty. The white peaks tower over hill-land black with cedar, and this looks down upon the green bottom scattered over with white sage-winter above lying by the side of summer below.”
Burton set no pattern for later writings about the Great Basin. Instead, the Basin became known as something of a horror, an area whose resources could be removed but which could also be lethal. Travel guides for emigrants—some of them written by people who never saw the territory—spread the word. Indeed, by the time Burton wrote, the Donner Party fiasco had already shown the consequences of the Basin’s reputation. When the party found itself in treacherous snow, it could have turned back to the relative safety of the Sierra foothills to winter over. The Truckee Meadows even offered hot springs. But emigrant travelers had been so thoroughly indoctrinated with the idea that the Basin was to be gotten through as fast as possible without ever turning back that going back was inconceivable.
It was a status that endured well into the 20th century. President after president “withdrew” land from public use for undesirable projects that other areas didn’t want, from an ammunition depot in Hawthorne (established after a 1926 disaster in New Jersey killed 21 people) to atomic testing and its radioactive strain of peril.
State leaders aided this reputation by encouraging any dirty project in the name of jobs and economic development. They helped foster an attitude that Nevada was a big sandbox where messes were welcomed.
During battles over the federal plan to put MX missile installations in Nevada and Utah an Air Force officer beheld the Nevada desert and called it a “great nuclear sponge.”
Later, a visiting officer at the Fallon Naval Air Station had a similar reaction—“Never Never Land,” he called it. These out-of-state figures had no notion of the fragility of a desert ecology, much less of the change in the terrain over the horizon.
Thus, the national notion of Nevada as brown and gray and useless thrived. There were occasional breaks, such as the 1974 publication by National Geographic of the article “The Other Nevada,” that showcased the beauty and diversity of less known parts of the state, but they were like pellets against the hull of a tank.
In the 1920s, there were some efforts to create a national park in some of the most stunning areas of eastern Nevada. It failed, but it kept coming back.
The term Great Basin can be misleading. Historian James Hulse has compared it to a bowl of mashed potatoes. The potatoes rise higher in the center than do the sides of the bowl.
It was the high places in the basin that were always considered an important part of the concept of a national park. Nevada’s stereotypical features did not match anyone’s idea of a national park. Wheeler Peak, Mt. Washington, Granite Peak, and the water features among them—Teresa Lake, Shoshone Creek—helped dispel the stereotype. Lehman Caves—actually one cave—did the same.
In 1934, landscape architect William Penn Mott surveyed the area for the National Park Service and recommended creation of the park. It didn’t happen.
In the 1950s, a new figure arrived on the scene. Darwin Lambert, a newspaper editor formerly associated with existing national parks like Shenandoah, became editor of the Ely newspaper, head of the local chamber of commerce, then a state legislator. He brought the idea of a national park back to life. He won enactment of state legislation, made movies about eastern Nevada, and proselytized the park every chance he got. In 1959, he said, “The [national] park proposal has had enough support and publicity now to gain attention in all the top echelons, but still the trail to success is quite long. It is up to all of us in Nevada, interested in promoting the economy of the state and in preserving for all time an important park of America’s heritage, to get behind this movement.”
In 1962, President Kennedy sent a conservation message to Congress calling for creation of Great Basin National Park. In 1966, President Johnson did the same.
But the park faced opposition from the spiritual ancestors of today’s anti-government groups. It also became ensnarled in congressional rivalries.
1965 seemed to be the year—Nevada Senators Alan Bible and Howard Cannon sponsored a Great Basin Park of 123,380 acres, but it died when U.S. Rep. Walter Baring insisted on his own proposed 53,000-acre park and refused their offer to cut 19,500 acres.
By then Lambert had become an Alaska editor, but he had given the park idea visibility it never had before.
Then in 1982 Harry Reid won election to the U.S. House. It was a period when Congress was establishing wilderness areas in various states. Reid decided to use the Nevada wilderness bill as a vehicle for the park.
It was not a propitious time. Reid was the only Democrat in the four-member congressional delegation, and Republicans Barbara Vucanovich, Paul Laxalt and Chic Hecht were all skeptical about the park. But Reid was relentless and very cooperative. Whenever one of the Republicans raised an objection—grazing, mining, water, whatever—Reid was agreeable to changing his proposal. He didn’t let the amount of acreage let things break down again. He wanted 174,000 acres, Laxalt countered with 44,000. Reid worked out an agreement with Vucanovich for 77,000, a break in the Republican wall. Reid wanted a park under almost any circumstances. He could add later.
That’s the way it went through, and on Aug. 15, 1987, the park was dedicated. The Reagan administration did its best to reduce Reid’s role in the ceremony—Laxalt was made the principal speaker—but there was no obscuring Reid’s stature as the man of the hour.
Also on hand were Mott, finally seeing his 1934 vision come to fruition, and Lambert, finally seeing all his efforts pay off. Mott, by then National Parks director, called the new park “the jewel in the crown” of the parks system.
The creation of the park went a long way toward broadening the nation’s view of Nevada. “The Last Great Park,” Newsweek called it. “Stalagmites And Stunning Vistas” was the headline in Time. Travel guides added the park to their pages and in subsequent years Reid added to the acreage. Next year the U.S. Mint will stamp a Great Basin Park quarter.
Utah State University has published a new book, Great Basin National Park by Gretchen Baker. Though marketed as a park guide, it’s more than just that. In some ways it is an odd book—sometimes history, sometimes tourism, sometimes science. It even busts a myth about a 1919 shoot-out tale. There are times when it appears to be a family history of White Pine County’s Bakers while giving too little attention to other prominent figures in the park’s history. Nevertheless, it’s a compilation of information on the park that is unmatched elsewhere. And it comes at a good time.
As Nevada faces the most serious economic rebuilding job in decades, Great Basin National Park has done a good deal to reposition the state’s marketability, change its image, and widen its appeal.