The date of Aug. 25, 2016, marked the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary. We asked Dave Uberuaga, former Grand Canyon National Park superintendent, to look back and also look forward to the next 100 years.
What stories from the Grand Canyon’s past most resonate with you?
One of the more emotional settings for me is to recognize that the government removed native people from parklands. That severed their connection with their homeland. There are still hurt feelings. That’s something I’m personally passionate about, helping tribes reconnect with their lands. We’ve convened an inter-tribal advisory council, and all 11 tribes are represented. One of our major projects together is setting up an inter-tribal visitor center at Desert View. We’ll have year-round cultural demonstrations representing different tribes and their crafts, their voices, their art, their music.
What would the canyon be like today if it hadn’t been protected as a national park in 1919?
It would have been more heavily mined, with extraction scars and polluted springs. You’d have a diminished visitor experience from what is now a world heritage site. It wouldn’t be as grand.
How has the park balanced its dual mission of protecting resources and providing visitor enjoyment over the years?
In the first 50 to 60 years, it was about building infrastructure: campgrounds, visitor centers, and park headquarters. It was, let’s get the people to the park. It wasn’t until during my career, in the ‘80s and ‘90s and since then, that we’ve had a refocusing on how to preserve and protect what people come to see.
What does the NPS Centennial mean to you?
I’ve been reflecting a lot on the past 100 years—what the park service has meant to the American public and the international and world communities. What’s really important for us, we need to look forward and continually find ways to connect with the youth and find new audiences for these special places. Once they get that connection, I hope they can learn how to value and appreciate the story and the land and connect to their history. That’s really what’s at the heart of the Centennial.
What is the Grand Canyon doing to engage young people?
We have successfully installed a distance learning studio, a full TV studio to reach out every day to classrooms all over the country. We have a ranger in front of a green screen and we step right into these classrooms. We commit ranger staff all winter to go to underserved schools and do ranger talks. And in a very practical way, we’ve tried to up our game in social media.
What are the park’s major challenges in the next 100 years?
The challenge for me now is, how do you maintain a premier, world-class visitor experience? It’s absolutely incredible to watch visitors go to the rim and come off river trips. The other one is, how do we assure the public appreciates and values their parks 100 years from now? We have some resource challenges, too: diminished water resources, the impact of climate change.
What about the threats of development, like the proposed Escalade complex east of the park?
People have to recognize that it is still a very real threat. There is no long-term protection in place. The Hopi, the Zuni, and most of the Navajo Nation want that area protected more than it is. A week doesn’t go by that they don’t call and ask, “How can you make sure this doesn’t happen?” Part of it is making sure there is a national voice, and that’s what we’ve worked on within the conservation community. We don’t want to diminish the Grand Canyon by having something like the Escalade. You can see the proposed Escalade site from Desert View, and it would scar that whole landscape.
What can visitors look forward to in the next 100 years?
People touch this resource in different ways. There are those that come just for a few hours, take in a sunset. There are those who spend two weeks down on the river. There are those who hike down and spend a week exploring. For us, it’s about maintaining a premier visitor experience. A place that has clean air, clean water, and natural quiet. If you combine tribal lands, other public lands, and Grand Canyon, it’s a map of more than 5 million acres. So maintaining that wildness and that experience is something everybody can look forward to.