Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE June 1996

Progress on the Geologic Mapping Act

The effort to reauthorize the National Geologic Mapping Act of 1992 began to bear fruit this spring. In the House of Representatives, a bill was introduced on March 29 and a hearing was held on April 23. In the Senate, an identical bill was introduced in late April with a hearing scheduled for mid-May.

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) introduced House bill H.R. 3198, "The National Geologic Mapping Reauthorization Act of 1996." The legislation would provide funding authority for the National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) through fiscal year 2000. This program supports mapping projects undertaken by the USGS and by state geological surveys and universities. Federal funds for the latter two cooperative components are matched by state and university dollars (For more background on the program and its reauthorization, see "Political Scene," Geotimes, December 1995.

Once a bill is introduced, it is referred to a committee (or committees) with jurisdiction over the issues covered in the legislation. In this case, H.R. 3198 was referred to the Committee on Resources, the chairman of which then assigned the bill to the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, which is chaired by bill sponsor Calvert. The April hearing shows the importance of support from committee and subcommittee chairs; most bills never make it to this first step in the legislative process.

Words of Support
At the hearing on H.R. 3198, two panels of witnesses testified in support of the bill. Because of its noncontroversial nature, no witnesses testified in opposition. Calvert began the hearing by noting that this bill was a rare instance in which the Administration and both parties in Congress were in agreement. He later remarked that H.R. 3198 was the first bill considered by his subcommittee that had received Administration support from the outset. All three witnesses in the first panel stressed the importance of partnerships in this program and held it up as an example of how the federal government can work with the states and universities to better identify priorities while maintaining a national perspective and standards.

USGS Chief Geologist P. Patrick Leahy, testifying on behalf of the Administration, discussed the program's efforts to reach out to stakeholders, expand cooperative agreements, and make digital geologic mapping data available over the Internet. Leahy also testified that the Survey was focusing more on integrated projects in urban corridors (particularly "urban fringes") where there is a critical need for improved geologic information for land-use decisions as rapid building occurs.

Idaho State Geologist Earl Bennett testified on behalf of the Association of American State Geologists -- an AGI member society. Bennett emphasized the value of leveraging federal funds through the state geological surveys. The association's written testimony included examples from 26 states of how the program had helped to produce geologic maps in areas where there was a critical need for geologic information associated with geological hazards, potential mineral and water resources, and environmental concerns.

AGI President Bob Hatcher testified in support of the cooperative educational component, which matches federal and university dollars to support mapping projects by graduate students and faculty. Hatcher has spent much of his career mapping the Appalachians and other mountain belts and serves as a member of the selection committee for this component, which was funded for the first time in fiscal year 1996. Although the educational component is the smallest within the program, Hatcher testified that it " has the potential to deliver the greatest long-term benefit, providing valuable experience and training for the next generation of field-oriented geoscientists." He also commended the program for building bridges between the academic community and federal and state geological surveys.

Testimony from users of geologic maps
Witnesses in the second panel discussed the importance of geologic maps from the perspective of non-geoscientists who use geologic information. Urban planner Martha Blair Tyler, who works in the earthquake-prone San Francisco Bay area, testified that urb an planners use geologic maps and derivative seismic hazard maps to establish safety elements for local general plans and identify potentially hazardous areas where additional geologic studies are required prior to development. She noted that much of the mapping in the Bay Area was out of date and needed revision but that state and local governments were badly underfunded, and she referred to federal support for geologic mapping as "a small ounce of prevention."

Another perspective was provided by James Stribling, a biologist with a Maryland environmental consulting firm that designs and implements environmental monitoring and assessment programs. He testified that geologic information provides the framework for organizing other environmental information, citing the critical link between the underlying geology and soil content and water chemistry.

Congressional concerns
Chairman Calvert asked whether geologic mapping functions could be improved by privatization or contracting. Several witnesses indicated that the private sector can and does provide support services such as aerial photography but cautioned that the actual mapping was a labor-intensive process that did not lend itself to commercialization. Ranking minority member Neal Abercrombie (D-HI) asked whether the United States is in danger of losing its future geologic mapping capacity. Hatcher responded that he hoped this program, by renewing federal support for field-oriented projects, would provide a cadre of well-trained mappers to meet future needs.

Hatcher and many of the other witnesses are members of the newly appointed National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program Advisory Committee, which held its first meeting later the same week. Although the committee was mandated by the 1992 Act, its 16 members were only appointed this spring by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. Chaired by Leahy, the committee consists of representatives from federal agencies, state geological surveys, universities, and the private sector. It will evaluate the scientific progress of the program and provide guidance on priorities and implementation.

The Senate reauthorization bill, introduced by Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), is identifical to H.R. 3198. Supporters in both the House and Senate hope to keep the bill free of amendments, particularly on the contentious issue of privatization. They argue that this issue is much broader than simply geologic mapping and should receive its own separate legislation and hearings.

Bipartisan bills like H.R. 3198 can pass Congress without floor debate or recorded votes through "unanimous consent." Once the bill has emerged from the committee process, the leadership in each house circulates it to the members. If nobody objects, then the bill is passed by voice vote. As long as the bill is passed in identical form in both houses, it can go directly to the President for signature. Thus, if the geologic mapping reauthorization bill avoids extensive amendment, it stands a good chance of becoming law.

David Applegate
Director of Government Affairs
American Geological Institute

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