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Geological Survey, U. S.


GEOLOGICAL SURVEY, U. S. The United States Geological Survey is charged with the classification of the public lands and examination of the geological structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain. It was established on 3 March 1879 in the Department of the Interior, and has been studying and mapping the land area of the United States ever since.

Origins of the Survey

Until its creation, scientific investigations were largely considered to be the responsibility of individual states or private institutions. The military had engaged in some scientific activities, but the federal government did not become involved until the 1830s. The growing realization that certain economic purposes could be advanced by science, or more accurately, that scientific activities of the federal government should serve the greater economic interests of the nation, led to change. In 1836, Congress authorized the United States Exploring Expedition to the Pacific, which had the backing of many influential scientists, as an aid to commerce. Two years later the Corps of Topographical Engineers was established to explore and map the continent. The Topographical Engineers provided geologists the opportunity to explore and study the West for the next two decades. Government support for their efforts was, however, tepid at best.

The discovery of gold changed that. The California Gold Rush of 1848 led several states in the South and the Midwest to establish state geological surveys to assess land usage and search for mineral deposits. The federal government established the Department of the Interior in 1849 in part to deal with land ownership issues. The gold rush also made the development of better communication and transportation between the eastern states and western territories more important. The Topographical Engineers explored four different routes for the transcontinental railroad and railway construction opened the West to further development and mineral exploitation. The Civil War accelerated industrial development and the demand for minerals such as iron ore and coal. The war, however, also brought an end to all but one of the state geological surveys.

The dramatic increase of demands on the nation's natural resources during and immediately following the war led Congress in 1867 to authorize western explorations in which geology would be the principal objective. It specifically called for a study of the geological and natural resources along the fortieth parallel route of the transcontinental railroad by the Army Corps of Engineers and a geological survey of the natural resources of the newest state, Nebraska, under the direction of the General Land Office. Clarence King, a member of the first class to graduate from Yale's Sheffield Scientific School in 1862, led the fortieth parallel expedition, and Ferdinand Hayden, a medical doctor by training, led the Nebraska effort. Both surveys proved successful and gained further funding. In 1870, Hayden presented plans to Congress calling for the gradual preparation of a series of geographical and geological maps of each of the territories on a uniform scale.

Meanwhile, two other surveys had gotten under way. John Wesley Powell, professor of geology at Illinois State Normal University, used private funding to explore the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and eastern Utah in 1867 and 1868. Then, in 1869, he set out by boat to travel the

Green and Colorado Rivers and explore the Grand Canyon. Lieutenant George Wheeler of the Army Corps of Engineers received orders to scout the country south and east of White Pine, Nevada, for military purposes. In 1871, after his return, Wheeler proposed a plan for mapping the United States west of the one hundredth meridian on a scale of eight miles to the inch. Convinced that there was enough work for all four surveys, Congress continued funding both civilian and military mapping efforts until a slow economy forced it to cut costs. On the recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences, Congress consolidated all geodetic, topographic, and land-parceling surveys into the newly formed U. S. Geological Survey in the Interior Department, which would classify the public lands and study the geological and economic resources of the public domain. The survey began operations created on 1 July 1879 and Clarence King, whose Fortieth Parallel Survey had led the way in converting western exploration into an exact science, was appointed its first director.

The Early Directors

Although King remained as director for only two years—enough time to organize the work—he had such a profound impact on the organization and its mode of operation that the survey still clearly bore his imprint decades later. Geological research would no longer be a byproduct as it had been on earlier expeditions, but rather the main focus. He separated the work into the Mining Geology and General Geology divisions. The legislation creating the survey did not clearly define its duties, and this gave King a great deal of latitude. He planned a series of land maps to provide information for agriculturists, miners, engineers, timbermen, and political economists, and confined operations to public lands. He gave the work of the survey a mission orientation, planned the goals, and selected the staff members while giving them the freedom to choose their own methods of work for achieving the goals. Given the lack of knowledge about precious metal resources, he focused the initial work on mining geology.

In 1881, King chose Powell as his successor. Powell, who differed greatly in his approach because of his natural history and anthropology background, immediately made the topographic work of the survey independent of geological studies. He redirected all topographic work toward the preparation of a geologic map of the entire United States. That task became the largest part of the Geological Survey's program. In 1887, an economy-minded Congress altered its method of funding the survey's work by requiring it to present itemized estimates for its funds so Congress could control expenditures.

The drought of 1886 and the severe winter that followed it on the Great Plains brought water and irrigation issues to national attention as never before. In October 1888, Congress authorized the survey to investigate the viability of irrigation in the region and to close the public domain while the survey work was conducted. Powell eagerly expanded the nature of the Geological Survey's focus into hydrography; however, that distracted the survey from its work in mineral geology. Congress quickly grew impatient waiting for results, but Powell argued that he could not offer any recommendations until all the facts were in. Congress responded by cutting off funding for the irrigation survey in 1890. Already unhappy over the irrigation survey and the Geological Survey's failure to serve directly the economic interests of the country, Congress slashed appropriations for most scientific agencies and the Senate launched an investigation of the survey's operations. Both steps were direct challenges to Powell and his policies.

Charles D. Walcott, who had begun as a paleontologist, replaced Powell in 1894. Walcott understood the problems faced by the survey and returned it to King's mission orientation while broadening it to aid all industries that could benefit from geology. The Geological Survey quickly returned to practical matters regarding mining and then cautiously began expanding its interests again. In 1894, water studies recommenced, with studies of underground water and water utilization added to the work on stream gauging. Walcott prevented the topographic work from being transferred to another agency simply by announcing that the quality of the topographic map would be improved. He also silenced some criticisms by placing the Survey under the Civil Service. The Survey

greatly increased the practical value of topographic maps through the placement of permanent benchmarks showing the exact location and elevation of fixed points.

The Survey As an Agent of National Policy

With federal science so vital to the economic life of the country, it inevitably became caught up in the formulation of national policy, and the Geological Survey was at the fore of the effort. Director Walcott had a hand in the passage of two key conservation measures. The Organic Act of 1897 assigned control of the newly created forest reserves (later known as national forests) to the Department of Interior, and gave the survey the task of mapping the reserves immediately. In 1902, the newly formed Reclamation Service, which was established to deal with the irrigation problems of the West, was placed within the Geological Survey. Five years later, the Reclamation Service became an independent bureau. That same year the forest reserves were transferred to the Department of Agriculture and the newly formed United States Forest Service. The increased interest in nonmetalliferous resources, including the fossil fuels, broadened the mission of the survey even more. Demand for oil and coal as fuel sources meant finding new deposits of those substances as well as formulating more efficient ways of extracting and delivering them. Eventually, the Geological Survey would become deeply involved in formulating energy policies.

The Geological Survey also started working outside the national domain. In 1897, a survey geologist and a hydrographer traveled to Nicaragua to study a proposed canal route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and a few years later geologists were sent to investigate the mineral resources of Cuba and the Philippine Islands. Overseas work expanded further still during World War I as the need for new sources of minerals became critical.

Walcott's departure in 1907 signaled more than just a change in leadership. His successor, George Otis Smith, significantly altered the agency's focus. Smith was very interested in a business policy for the public domain, and believed that the work of his agency should be primarily, although not exclusively, practical. By the time he left office over twenty-three years later, nearly all of the agency's geological work was reoriented toward research. The demands placed on the Survey during World War I hastened this shift: progress in American science convinced industry of the value of research, taught scientists of different disciplines to cooperate with one another to solve problems, and introduced both public-and private-sector scientists to disciplines outside their own. The mineral shortages both during and after the war led Congress finally to appropriate funds for the classification of the public domain to determine how to handle the mineral lands.

Meanwhile, more mapping work was needed. The military demands of the war and the postwar boom in road construction revealed the critical shortage of adequate maps. Nearly 60 percent of the nation remained totally unmapped at the close of the conflict. Development of the trilens aerial camera and related equipment made the work easier. During his lengthy term as director, Smith oversaw the professionalization of geology as well as its diversification. The survey employed scientists in most of the scientific fields, and became involved in energy, water, topography, and mineral policy making. Despite the difficulties and the smaller budgets during the Great Depression and at the outset of World War II, Smith and his successors succeeded in maintaining a focus on the necessity of basic research.

World War II led to dramatic changes for the agency. The survey contributed to the war effort by searching out new sources of needed minerals, conducting research into making industry more efficient, and carrying on mapping work for the military both at home and abroad. The agency's expansion during the war continued well into the postwar period because of increased attention to science and the management of natural resources that resulted from Cold War politics. Topographic mapping continued, but less than 10 percent of the country had been mapped geologically, making natural resource management difficult. Geologists began adapting photogrammetric methods for mapmaking and using new devices like helicopters and electron microscopes to aid their effort.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Geological Survey expanded its boundaries of examination still further. The nuclear arms race led to cooperation with the Atomic Energy Commission to evaluate the effects of underground nuclear testing and the environmental impacts of peaceful uses of atomic energy. Studies of geological processes led to measures for protecting the general public from natural disasters; for example, the study of volcanic activity eventually aided in the prediction of volcanic eruptions. Similar work was later undertaken on hurricanes and earthquakes. In 1959, the survey compiled a photogeologic map of the moon, and soon found itself training America's astronauts in geology. At the same time, the survey began working in Antarctica and the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. In 1962, the agency began marine studies of the ocean floor to identify and evaluate potential mineral resources and to aid in solving the environmental problems caused by rapid population growth, urbanization, and industrial expansion in coastal areas.

The survey also continued advising the nation on environmental and energy policies. It spearheaded fossil fuel exploration in places like Alaska and the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and contributed to policy debates. A leaking oil well off the coast of Southern California at Santa Barbara in 1969 led to the creation of a task force, which included some survey geologists and engineers, to propose new and more stringent operating regulations to prevent or control such incidents in the future. The Santa Barbara oil spill was also a catalyst for the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970.

The next two decades saw a marked increase in multidisciplinary studies and in the diversity and complexity of agency operations, and also saw a concerted effort to make complex scientific information more easily usable in the solution of contemporary problems such as urban development or energy shortages. Technical assistance programs in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, started in 1964, were expanded and studies of the solar system were extended to Mars and other planets. The survey began using satellites to aid in its various mapping efforts. The transfer of the Alaskan Petroleum Reserve to the Department of the Interior in 1977 meant a 50 percent increase in funding and a corresponding increase in responsibility over activities on the reserve. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan's declaration of the Exclusive Economic Zone extended the jurisdiction of the United States for a distance of two hundred nautical miles seaward and thereby more than doubled the area of the national domain to be mapped and within which mineral and energy resources had to be assessed. The survey began mapping the three million square nautical miles in the zone the following year and also gathering other geological data for use by federal and state agencies.

Natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions created new challenges for the survey, which participated in preparing for natural disasters and hazards. Research into these phenomena has helped the agency address the public's concern over the dangers from the effects of natural hazards. Addressing that concern became a paramount function of the survey in the 1980s and 1990s, and has remained such since. The work has greatly aided in reducing the loss of life.

In 2002, the agency reaffirmed that its mission is to provide reliable information to "describe and understand the Earth; minimize loss of life and property from natural disasters; manage water, biological, energy, and mineral resources; and enhance and protect [the nation's] quality of life." To meet those objectives, the survey began closer cooperation with individual states, sought to increase openness and participation in the bureau's decision-making process, and fully integrated the National Biological Service into the survey. This gave the Department of the Interior a single earth and biological science bureau consisting of four disciplines: Geological, Geographic, Water Resources, and Biological Resources. The divisions operate from the agency's headquarters in Reston, Virginia, and from regional centers in Denver, Colorado; Menlo Park, California; and other field offices.


Bruce, Robert V. The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846–1876. Ithaca, N. Y. : Cornell University Press, 1987.

Dupree, A. Hunter. Science in the Federal Government: A History of Policies and Activities to 1940. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1957.

Manning, Thomas G. Government in Science: The U. S. Geological Survey, 1867–1894. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1967.

Rabbitt, Mary C. The United States Geological Survey, 1879–1989. Reston, Va. : Department of the Interior, Geological Survey, 1979. The best source for this topic.

———. Minerals, Lands, and Geology for the Common Defence and General Welfare: A History of Public Lands, Federal Science and Mapping Policy, and Development of Mineral Resources in the United States. 3 vols. Washington, D. C. : U. S. Geological Survey, U. S. Government Printing Office, 1979–1986.

Reisner, Marc P. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. New York: Viking, 1986.

Worster, Donald. Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.

James G.Lewis

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