The Decades-Long Political Fight to Save the Grand Canyon

Americans had long known about the wonders of the southwestern landmark, but it wouldn’t be until 1919 that it would gain full federal protection

Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon National Park Prisma by Dukas

Grand Canyon National Park celebrates its centennial this year– but if had been up to then-Senator Benjamin Harrison, America would have marked that milestone in 1982. One hundred years earlier, the ahead-of-its-time proposal from the future President to designate the park as a national landmark faltered in Congress, the first of many defeats in the Grand Canyon’s surprisingly controversial path to becoming a protected treasure. The battle to preserve it for future generations, as Theodore Roosevelt famously exhorted during a visit there in 1903, would play out for decades, marked by acrimonious legal battles, bitter business rivalries and political maneuvering.

“Benjamin Harrison was competing against ignorance,” says Don Lago, author of Grand Canyon: A History of a Natural Wonder and National Park. At the time, “there really wasn’t any political constituency to support a national park; very few people had been there.”

In 1882 the bill from Harrison, at the time a senator from Indiana, to designate “a certain tract of land lying on the Colorado River of the West in the Territory of Arizona as a public park” garnered little support and died out. Subsequent attempts in 1883 and 1886 met the same fate. Harrison’s efforts ran counter to the dominant interests in the region—mining, westward territorial expansion, and private land use—and preceded the momentum of the nascent conservation movement.

Harrison was an ardent conservationist, but his efforts have largely been overlooked. During his political career, he safeguarded 13 million acres of nature for public use. Though he never visited the Grand Canyon, he did visit Yellowstone—the first national park, formed in 1872— and Yosemite gained the same status during his presidency.

Despite many generations of habitation by Native Americans, the Grand Canyon had only recently come to the attention of much of the country, which had acquired vast swaths of new territory to explore—and exploit—at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848. Explorer and geologist John Wesley Powell set out in 1869 to survey the Colorado River, losing men and depleting rations along the way, and emerged from the experience a national celebrity.

Powell wrote a book, Exploring the Colorado River, based on his treacherous journey and conjured up the grandeur of the landscape for faraway readers who could not yet conceive of its depths. “Stand down among the gorges and the landscape seems to be composed of huge vertical elements of wonderful form,” he wrote. “Above, it is an open, sunny gorge; below it is deep and gloomy. Above, it is a chasm; below it is a stairway from gloom to heaven.”

Powell’s wasn’t the first big expedition of this new era—Lieutenant Joseph C. Ives of the U.S. Army Corps of Topgraphical Engineers had traversed the area in the 1850s and deemed it to be “altogether valueless,” predicting that theirs would be the sole “party of whites to visit this profitless locality.” Ives’ conclusion reflected the mentality of the many prospectors who converged on the American Southwest in the late 19th century, viewing the land through the lens of mining and other economic prospects (ironically, the canyon would ultimately yield little in the way of profitable or easy mining). Despite Ives’ earlier incursion, it was Powell’s that gripped the nation’s imagination and put the Grand Canyon on its collective horizon.

In the face of continued, bipartisan Congressional inaction, President Harrison, and later President Theodore Roosevelt, relied on executive actions to protect this majestic swath of Arizona. In a February 20, 1893, proclamation, issued in the last weeks of his lone term in office, President Harrison created the Grand Cañon Forest Reserve, citing the powers vested in him by the Forest Reserve Act of 1891. The legislation allowed the president to unilaterally designate forested areas as reserves, but Harrison alluded that the act was not his primary motivation. The lands in question, he wrote, “are in part covered with timber, and it appears that the public good would be promoted by setting apart and reserving said lands as a public reservation…” In a similar vein, his successors—presidents Grover Cleveland and William McKinley—would add millions of acres of protected forest solely through executive action (and like Harrison, Cleveland would add a big boost during his last month in office—21 million acres in February of 1897).

President Roosevelt would take up this mantle in an even more forceful manner, using both the Forest Reserve Act and the Antiquities Act of 1906 to further conservationist goals, designating the Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908 by pointing to its scientific and historical value to further shield it. Both presidents were pushing the idea of nature having an inherent worth, but were up against a deeply ingrained belief that the land was there to be used for benefit.

“There was a huge juggernaut of success behind that idea. Americans were spreading westward and finding endless new resources. It was making the country quite wealthy,” says Lago. “So there was this mythology that the land was there to use for wealth and not to preserve as wilderness. Despite the prevailing mindset, Lago says Roosevelt realized “we needed to re-write our national sense of value and protecting the land.”

The formation of national parks in the latter half of the 19th century was aided by the increasing prominence of naturalists like John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892, along with other writers and artists who helped feed an appreciation of nature with their portrayal of these western landscapes. The consequences of unchecked expansion on wildlife and nature also fed the idea that some regulation was necessary to sustain them. Though these spaces would become popular as respites from increasingly crowded and urbanized parts of the country, they would remain difficult to access from the eastern part of the country until the arrival of railroads at the turn of the century.

In the decades before the establishment of the Grand Canyon, the divergence between for conservationists and the enduring ethos of the homesteading settler played out in when and how these parks were formed. The laws still encouraged the claiming and prospecting of new land, which were then used for ranching, timber, mining—or, as would later be the case near the Grand Canyon, tourism. Furthermore, as Michael F. Anderson writes in “Polishing the Jewel: An Administrative History of Grand Canyon National Park,” the dispersal of land grants was “equally generous to industrious individuals willing to take a financial risk and of far greater benefit to corporations that would take on the task of building transcontinental railroads.” Unlike Yellowstone, the land around the Grand Canyon was already contested by these interests when Roosevelt made them into a national monument. Arizona, which did not gain formal statehood until 1912, was ripe for a clash of these forces that had coalesced in part due to generous land laws.

In the early 1900s, Roosevelt and Harrison’s efforts were both helped and harmed by the arrival of hordes of tourists to the Grand Canyon. Once requiring a long stagecoach journey from Flagstaff, Arizona, the opening of the Santa Fe Railroad’s Grand Canyon route 1901 brought visitors the South Rim from Williams, Arizona, making it much more accessible. The extension of western railroads—and later the popularity of automobiles—put travel to many once-remote areas within reach, including to Yellowstone and Yosemite. The railroad companies, well aware of the opportunities in the West, were already encouraging wealthy Americans to “See American First,” a slogan designed to pull them away the great sights of Europe and toward the increasingly popular Western landscape. Railroads “really rose to the challenge of the national parks,” says Lago. “They saw that these were world-class natural wonders, and they were sort of patriotic icons as well.”

The shift from land as a form of economic opportunity and individual entrepreneurship to tourist attraction caused growing pains. In an oft-quoted 1903 speech, Roosevelt said that “man can only mar it,” but then called the Grand Canyon “one of the great sights which every American if he can travel should see.” More visitors meant more popular support and appreciation for the need to preserve the landmark—but their arrival also preceded the protections and infrastructure needed to accommodate the such crowds (the National Park Service was formed in 1916, consolidating fractured management of the park system). As visitors streamed in, poorly regulated tourism underscored the need for a more formal oversight.

But such oversight didn’t sit well with those who felt they had earned their right to keep what they had claimed. Businessman Ralph Henry Cameron, who had seen the terrain as ripe for further profits and acquired prime canyon real estate under the banner of mining claims, symbolized the resistance to the lands being subsumed into a national park. Cameron had opened a hotel and began charging a toll for the use of the Bright Angel Trail—a miniature monopoly that would pit him against both the railroad and staunch conservationist advocates like Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service. Mather, who devoted years of his life and his own personal wealth to support the parks, matched Cameron in his single-minded determination.

Despite Cameron’s resources and clout, sympathizers viewed him as something of a common man pushing back against the behemoths of business and government. A profile in the Albuquerque Journal in February of 1917 hailed Cameron as a westerner “fighting singlehanded the great corporation tooth and toe nail,” a self-reliant outdoorsman and entrepreneur who “wanted to represent a constituency of the same sort of men.” (Cameron held a series of public offices, including serving as a senator in the 1920s). For years, his fight to protect his turf dragged out in the courts, including a challenge to Roosevelt’s use of Antiquities Act, culminating in a Supreme Court defeat in 1921, more than a decade after Roosevelt had left office and two years after he died.

Opponents like Cameron would ultimately be overcome by growing calls for preservation as an end in and of itself. In 1917, Arizona Senator Henry Ashurst—whose father William Henry Ashurst, a prospector, had died in an accident in the park—introduced a bill to solidify Grand Canyon’s stature as a national park, providing it with late entry into a league that already had 14 parks at the time. Upon his return from the Paris Peace Conference after World War I, President Woodrow Wilson promptly signed the bill into law, more than 1,000 square miles of land thereafter “withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or disposal under the laws of the United States and dedicated and set apart as a public park for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

A century on, the Grand Canyon, which has continued to evolve in size and stature, is now firmly enshrined on our national bucket list. Its long tenure as chasm in the earth viewed through the lens of personal use is mostly forgotten. Instead, as it marks its 100th birthday as a national park, the more than six million visitors each year are fulfilling Harrison and Roosevelt’s wish that generation after generation see its wonders firsthand.

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