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The Geoheritage Movement

On geoconservation and geoparks

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Should we treat geological treasures like endangered species? A growing movement says yes.

The early conservation movement in the 1800s focused on landmarks: extraordinary places like Yellowstone and Yosemite, areas full of geologic interest to be sure, but also teeming with wildlife and plant communities. Since then, governments have advanced in conserving endangered species and safeguarding the habitats that support them. But as the public has fallen in love with the whales and the bison, its concern for the landscape has stayed at the level of geography, not geology.

Refocusing on Landmarks

There are many unobtrusive things in the landscape that are dear to Earth scientists:

  • Bodies of unusual rock types
  • Landforms that preserve records of the past
  • Significant fossil localities
  • Stratigraphic type sections
  • Areas where significant advances in geology were made
  • Deposits of particular minerals

It doesn't take a degree in geology to appreciate their value and beauty, just a bit of exposure to them along with some knowledge. Just as habitats are valuable for science, education and aesthetics, so too are geologic features. The geoconservation movement labels them geoantiquities and preserves them in geoparks.

Other land uses can endanger geoantiquities, such as mining, housing or industrial development, road construction or uncontrolled access. Consider the shoreline features of glacial Lake Bonneville, in central Utah. A dramatic shelf of sand and gravel sits near Tooele, called the Stockton Bar. The deposits were first studied by G. K. Gilbert over 100 years ago, who found them a valuable record of the postglacial environment. Today the bar is largely intact, but mining and housing development threaten it and other remnants of the ancient shoreline. Researchers at the University of Utah are working to raise awareness of the region's geoantiquities.

How Geoparks Began

The movement to conserve geologic sites for their scientific value has its roots in Great Britain. After World War II, a national effort was launched to identify natural sites, and the result was a list of more than 4000 Sites of Special Scientific Interest. One-third of these are geological sites. In 1977 a new program, the Geological Conservation Review, was set up to winnow out the most valuable SSSIs and increase protections for them. Soon thereafter local, nongovernmental groups arose to draw attention to smaller Regionally Important Geological Sites. Today there are "RIGS Groups" all over Britain, a healthy geoconservation movement.

Greater Europe has stepped up in this arena too. A European Geoparks Network has arisen, spurred by the efforts of ProGeo, an organization founded in 1988. And in 2003 the United Nations' conservation agency UNESCO lent its support to the World Geoparks Network, headquartered in China, where today there are more geoparks than in any other country. This effort is a worthy complement to the World Heritage Sites of geologic interest.

A geopark is a center of sustainable development that has a geological core as well as the cultural setting to preserve and take careful advantage of it. UNESCO states that a geopark "has a direct impact on the area by improving human living conditions and the rural environment, thus strengthening identification of the population with their area and triggering cultural renaissance."

Toward American Geoparks

Geoconservation elsewhere lags behind the Chinese and European pace. One center of effort is at the University of Utah, mentioned earlier. In Canada, Allan Donaldson of Carleton University is beginning with a mailing list called the Friends of Canadian Geoheritage. And Australia has a UNESCO representative who is promoting geoparks there as well. Learn more about all of these in the Geoheritage list.

An American geopark, the National Geologic Trail, has been proposed for the amazing Channeled Scablands of the Pacific Northwest. Progress has been slow, but the land can wait for more receptive times.

In the United States, any university geology department or rockhounds club could start its version of a RIGS group. As I look around my own city, I see places to begin. Do you?

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