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Interior's Land Laboratory: The Geological Survey
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Interior's Land Laboratory: The Geological Survey

The 1879 act of Congress establishing the U.S. Geological Survey charged it with responsibility for "classification of the public lands, and examination of the geological structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain." Ever since, this Interior bureau has been the nation's principal source of scientific information about its land and the minerals and water therein. [41]

Mapping, surely the best-known aspect of the Survey's work, was integral to its mission from the beginning. Clarence King, the bureau's first director (1879-81), planned a series of maps to serve the needs of miners, farmers, timber producers, and engineers. Under his successor, John Wesley Powell (1881-94), topographic mapping became the largest part of the Survey's program. Powell was particularly interested in the arid western lands, having previously published his influential Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, and used the mapping surveys to identify irrigable land and reservoir sites there.

The full flowering of the utilitarian conservation movement during the tenure of Charles D. Walcott, the Survey's third director (1894-1907), greatly bolstered the scientific and practical work of the bureau. Congress made the first specific appropriation for its hydrologic studies in 1894 and thereafter increased support for this major Survey function. As previously noted, the Reclamation Service was born in the Survey in 1902 and spent the first five years of its life there before attaining separate bureau status. The discovery of oil at Spindletop, near Beaumont, Texas, in 1901 inaugurated a new era in the petroleum industry and quickly made oil a major concern of Survey geologists. Walcott's subsequent appointment as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution was a measure of the standing attained by his bureau in the scientific community.

With the outbreak of World War I, the Survey focused on investigations related to military and industrial preparedness. Its geologists searched out new areas likely to contain oil and minerals needed in the war effort. Its topographic personnel collaborated with the Army's Corps of Engineers in mapmaking. The success of the intensified mineral explorations significantly benefited commercial mineral production in the postwar period. In 1925 the Survey gained responsibility for supervising oil and mining operations conducted under leases on the public lands--a task requiring the addition of a large force of mining and petroleum engineers.

The Second World War again directed the energies of the Survey to topographic mapping of strategic areas and identification of critical minerals. Aerial photography and photogrammetry greatly expedited map making, and a new method of airborne magnetic surveying aided the search for metals. In more than 15,000 special reports, the Survey supplied land and water data for the location of military bases, manufacturing plants, and other war-related facilities.

John Wesley Powell Building
The Geological Survey's John Wesley Powell Building, completed 1973

During the 1970s space and satellite technology enabled another quantum jump in the Survey's capability. Remote sensing from the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS-1) launched in July 1972 yielded much new information on the earth and its resources. In mid-1976 two Viking spacecraft landed on Mars at a site chosen by Survey scientists to return maximum data on the geology of that planet. By then the bureau had produced more than 100 maps of the moon, Mars, Venus, and Mercury in support of America's space program.

The Geological Survey incurred the envy of its sister bureaus for another achievement during that decade. In 1973 it occupied a splendid new headquarters of its own in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Reston, Virginia--the only Interior bureau to be so favored. Designed by the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, the building is named for John Wesley Powell. It is a fitting tribute to the man whose legacy of practical science lives on in the Survey.

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