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National Parks, Part 2

Rock formations at Lehman Caves in Great Basin National Park.
By Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Rock formations at Lehman Caves in Great Basin National Park.

Last time we talked about the national park service centennial and how Nevada has the first official national recreation area: Lake Mead. Tule Springs has become a national monument, thanks to its ice age beginnings. A couple of national historic trails go through the state. And we have one national park—and that’s a story unto itself.

Around 1885, Absalom Lehman discovered some caves near his ranch in the Snake Valley, Nevada. A White Pine County newspaper reported, “Stalactites of extraordinary size hang from its roof and stalagmites equally large rear their heads from the floor.”

A Tonopah resident, Cada Boak, was active in the movement to build good highways. He publicized the existence of Lehman Caves. In response, in 1922, President Warren Harding designated Lehman Caves a national monument. The Forest Service ran it until Franklin Roosevelt gave control of all national monuments to the National Park Service. Meanwhile, Boak pushed to turn the area into a national park. Governor James Scrugham, a big advocate of parks, was all for it. Senator Key Pittman backed it. But stockmen opposed it. Grazing wasn’t allowed in national parks, and ranchers wanted to use the area for their purposes.

By the late 1950s, White Pine County’s economy was hurting. Senator Alan Bible thought a national park might help. He introduced a bill, supported by his Nevada colleague, Senator Howard Cannon. Democratic Representative Walter Baring introduced the same bill in the House. The measure would create a 147,000-acre national park on the Snake Range.

But ranchers objected because they said they needed the land to graze their livestock. Mining industry representatives fought it, too. They said the Snake Range could be valuable. Bible revised the bill to permit grazing and changed the boundaries to open the areas with the most potential for mining. But the forest service then said it had to cut back grazing there because the area had been overused, and the Interior Department recommended an increase in grazing fees. That increased the opposition. In turn, Baring introduced a different bill that would have reduced the park’s size and allowed mining and grazing. The battle of competing bills went on for several years. The Interior Department wouldn’t support Baring’s bill. With two different pieces of legislation from the same state, Congress was stuck and that was that.

Until the 1980s, when mining and ranching had a little less power. Then-Representative Harry Reid introduced a bill to create the Great Basin National Park of nearly 130,000 acres. Nevada’s two U.S. senators, Paul Laxalt and Chic Hecht, proposed a smaller park—less than 50,000 acres. Each house passed its own bill, and a committee worked out compromise legislation: about 76,000 acres. It was signed in 1986. Thirty years later, it’s one of America’s least visited national parks. It’s off the beaten path—about 300 miles north and east of Las Vegas, an hour south and east of Ely, near Baker, Nevada. But when you see Wheeler Peak, and the bristlecone pines, and Lehman Caves … you may not think national parks, or this national park, was America’s best idea, as some say. But they’ll certainly take your breath away.

Nevada Yesterdays is written by Associate Professor Michael Green of UNLV, and narrated by former Senator Richard Bryan. Supported by Nevada Humanities