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November 1999

Geoscientists in a Changing World: Where Do We Stand?

 David R. Wunsch

Editor’s note: Last year, the American Geological Institute and its foundation sponsored its first annual congressional science fellow, a geoscientist who serves one year as a science advisor to a congressional committee or in the office of a senator or representative. David Wunsch, AGI’s 1998–1999 congressional science fellow, recently completed one year as a staff member of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

I end my fellowship feeling wiser for having experienced congressional operations first-hand. Working on the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources exposed me to issues that demanded my education and professional experience in geology. Most of the committee’s legislative efforts were in issues of oil and gas valuation and mining, much of it involving leases on public lands in the western United States. These issues, as well as the greater issue of land management, can greatly affect employment opportunities for geoscientists. In this article I would like to share some observations and insights from my year on Capitol Hill, and opine on a couple of themes related to the issues that affect the geoscience community. Many of you have probably heard some of my message in other forums. However, we all learn a foreign language by repetition, and since most geologists view public policy as a foreign language, please read on.

Federal lands

Most western states contain a significant amount of federal land. For example, the federal government owns about 80 percent of the land in Nevada and 62 percent of the land in Idaho. Probably no other resources issue polarizes Congress more than dealing with multiple uses of federal lands—such as mining, grazing and land withdrawals for parks and monuments. I doubt that John Wesley Powell ever envisioned that the lands he explored and the federal agencies that are his legacy would set the stage for a rift that still pervades Congress more than 100 years later.

During my tenure with the subcommittee, I was exposed to the details of the land issues that confound the residents of western states. I observed first-hand the stewardship of the land exercised by westerners, and I appreciate how federal control of land impacts their lives, both physically and economically. But in reality, federal land ownership in the west impacts all of our lives.

Almost all of this nation’s mineral wealth lies in the western United States: Approximately half of the U.S. coal reserve exists on western public lands. However, the public’s impression of mining, by and large, has been skewed by television news bites and images of old, abandoned mines (from mining that took place decades ago) or of some enormous, active mine pit. These images foster the opinion that vast stretches of western land have become mining wastelands. But in reality, less than one percent of the total area of federal land has been mined!

Given that Congress members reflect the wills of their constituents, it would appear that most of the American public also does not understand how important these natural resources are to our energy and mineral independence, as well as to our national security. An illustrative example is the recent, lopsided vote in the House on an amendment sponsored by Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.) that legislatively ratified the opinion of the Solicitor of the Department of the Interior to limit millsites to five acres per 20-acre mining claim on federal land. The mining industry contends that this arbitrary change in opinion could effectively close down mining in many areas of the West. From the feedback that rolled into the subcommittee office, it was apparent that many representatives voted for this amendment simply because they considered it an easy “environmental” vote for their records, and that they didn’t fully understand the issue.

At the same time, a battle looms in Congress regarding revisions to the General Mining Law of 1872. It’s safe to say that most in Congress realize that the mining law as written has served its purpose, and that even some in the mining industry realize that revisions to the law are warranted. But western senators and representatives will be firm in their stand that any revisions do not effectively eliminate mining—a stand that is important not only to their districts, but to the entire country.

As geoscientists, we understand the ramifications for exercising “multiple uses” of our public lands. We know that advancements in mining and reclamation technology make it feasible to extract resources while minimizing adverse environmental effects. And we also understand the need to preserve national treasures for future generations. However, we do a poor job of communicating this information to policy-makers unless it affects our own local interests, or our jobs.

Geoscience Jobs

And speaking of jobs, here are a few ideas to consider about recent and future employment trends for geoscientists:

According to an article by G. Van der Vink and others in the Nov. 3, 1998, issue of Eos, the United States is becoming more vulnerable to natural disasters because population and wealth densities are migrating to areas prone to hazards. The authors suggest that the long-term economic effects of low-probability, high-cost events such as earthquakes and floods are not being acknowledged in land planning and development, and that losses from natural hazards will probably continue as populations grow and if the global climate changes. As a result, many geologists are and will be finding employment in interdisciplinary fields that incorporate the geosciences, such as land-use planning and environmental monitoring and management.

Corporate restructuring and mergers in the petroleum industry have reduced the number of exploration geologists. The budgets of the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Land Management, the Minerals Management Service and other federal agencies that have formed geologists’ traditional employment mainstay, have remained relatively flat when compared to other agencies like the National Institutes of Health. Meanwhile, most geoscientists would recognize that geologic hazard prediction and mitigation, land-use planning and natural-resource development are also important to the health and safety of society. However, any large-scale, organized efforts by geoscientists to communicate the importance of geoscience information to our representatives on Capitol Hill—and thus to secure more funding for geoscience research and related agencies—has been noticeably absent.

Geologists, aside from those serving a few public affairs committees or liaison groups, do not regularly visit Washington en masse to bring geoscience issues to Congress. Perhaps this could change when the American Geophysical Union holds its spring meeting next year in Washington, D.C., bringing thousands of earth scientists to the Hill.

A congressman recently advised a group of senior citizens visiting Washington that if they wanted Congress to pay attention to issues important to them, they had “better be ready to stand up and be counted, or be left behind.” We geoscientists must ask: What will motivate us, and where do we stand?

David R. Wunsch
Coordinator Coal-Field Hydrology Program, Kentucky Geological Survey, 228 Mining and Mineral Resources Bldg., University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40506

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