BLOGScientist Finally Gets Permit to Study Grand Canyon after Being Denied for His Beliefs

By Gary McCaleb Posted on: | June 28, 2017

As dry government language goes, it is about as bland as it comes: “Dr. Snelling’s proposal is well-stated with methods that are similar or equal to standard scientific practices to test the hypothesis provided.”

Such words likely appear year in and year out as government officials interact with scientists for any number of reasons. So, you wouldn’t suspect that it took over three years, several lawyers, and an inquiring congressman to pry those words out of the National Park Service.

But it did.

Thankfully, the National Park Service has finally agreed to issue a permit for Dr. Andrew Snelling to study the Grand Canyon.

The story began in November 2013. Dr. Snelling—a geologist who earned his Ph.D in geology from Australia’s esteemed University of Sydney—sought to answer a question that arose from the depths of Arizona’s Grand Canyon. The question was really pretty simple: while most of the Canyon is rather neatly layered, multihued sandstone, shale, and limestone, here and there along the Colorado River the rock is dramatically folded: the layers bend back one upon the other in mute testimony to some ancient and mighty force having passed that way.

Dr. Snelling wanted to extract small samples from the formation to test his hypothesis that the folding occurred rapidly, and thus he sought permission to collect a few dozen fist-sized rocks in and near those folds.

But this is where science was stonewalled: despite Dr. Snelling having been previously permitted to research in the Canyon, this time, the Park Service scientists and staff charged with reviewing application started finding fault—not with the science, but with the fact that Dr. Snelling is a Christian who holds a young-earth view of the Canyon’s creation.

What was important to the Park was not science, but suppressing his Christian views.

Thus began a three-year saga. The park first told Dr. Snelling that he could find other folds outside the park to test, without ever suggesting where those might be (and Dr. Snelling having duly researched the matter, had found none). And worse, behind the scenes the scientists enlisted by the park to review proposals were busy explaining that Dr. Snelling’s views should be excluded because “ours is a secular society as per our constitution”—a wrongheaded observation which suggests that geologists should stick with sediments, not constitutional amendments. On top of that, others weighed in, saying that the park should not even process “the dead end creationist material.”

Unaware that park officials had targeted his faith, Dr. Snelling continued working with the park, eventually submitting another application which addressed every concern that park officials openly raised. And finally in 2016—over two years after submitting the initial application—the park issued a permit ... but not to do the research, but rather obligating him to travel the river, document every spot he would obtain a sample using GPS technology, and then ask if he could do the same trip again to actually obtain the samples. The park had never imposed similar restrictions on other geologists, and the delay and expense was beyond the pale.

Dr. Snelling then turned to attorneys at Alliance Defending Freedom, who wrote the park to educate them on some basics of First Amendment law, and request that the permit be issued. Answer? None. Nothing. No response. Undaunted, ADF wrote again in January 2017, again requesting that the proper permit issue. Answer? None. Nothing. No response. Undeterred, Dr. Snelling enlisted the aid of Congressman Trent Franks, who wrote an official inquiry letter. Answer? None. Nothing. No response.

Only at this point, did Dr. Snelling resort to federal court, and ADF attorneys filed suit. And suddenly, a couple days later, the long-sought answer appeared, asking only that a few minor questions be clarified before a proper permit would be issued.

ADF attorneys, Dr. Snelling, and the lawyers for the Park Service then got to work, cleared up the details, and the permit issued. Soon, Dr. Snelling will traverse the canyon, collect his samples, and add to the knowledge of the time and unseen forces which have shaped the Canyon.

But we already know this: for 44 months, unseen forces shaped the park’s efforts to unlawfully derail Dr. Snelling’s research. Whether you ardently agree with Dr. Snelling’s views, or vigorously dispute them, for the sake of science and the Constitution, we should all support his right to scientific inquiry, without misguided bureaucrats suppressing his quest for knowledge simply because of his beliefs.


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Gary McCaleb

Senior Counsel

Gary McCaleb serves as senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, where he is a member of the Center for Cultural Engagement and Scholarship.

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