Geologic Heritage encompasses the significant geologic features, landforms, and landscapes characteristic of our Nation which are preserved for the full range of values that society places on them, including scientific, aesthetic, cultural, ecosystem, educational, recreational, tourism, and other values. Geoheritage sites are conserved so that their lessons and beauty will remain as a legacy for future generations.
Such areas generally have great potential for scientific studies, use as outdoor classrooms, and enhancing public understanding and enjoyment. Geoheritage sites are fundamental to understanding dynamic earth systems, the succession and diversity of life, climatic changes over time, evolution of landforms, and the origin of mineral deposits.
Our Shared Geoheritage
In 2015, the National Park Service's Geologic Resources Division staff in cooperation with the American Geosciences Institute published a booklet introducing the American experience with geoheritage, geodiversity, and geoconservation: "America's Geologic Heritage: An Invitation to Leadership". This publication introduces key principles and concepts of America's geoheritage which are the focus of ongoing collaboration and cooperation on geologic conservation in the United States.
Examples of Geoheritage Sites
A wide range of diversity can be seen in the natural, cultural, and historic resources within geoheritage sites. To get an idea of the types of geoheritage sites we have designated, see Geoheritage Sites—Examples on Public Lands, Natural Landmarks, Heritage Areas, and The National Register of Historic Places.
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National Register of Geoheritage Sites
A central aspect of many heritage programs is documenting resources and site conditions as part of a formal registry. Registries such as the National Register of Historic Places, established under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, provide an important accounting of heritage resources and values being conserved.
This register does not designate sites or assign value. In its current form, it simply a community-generated list that being hosted to share access to information on a diverse catalog of designated and undesignated geoheriage sites.
Geoheritage in Parks
Geoheritage sites can be found throughout the National Park System. The National Park System contains 266 parks with fossil resources, 94 parks with 4,700 known caves, and another 59 parks with known karst systems. Ninety-seven parks protect 7,500 miles of shoreline, 25 parks contain geothermal systems, 38 parks have volcanoes as a major feature, and 37 have active glacial features. Parks also contain a tremendous diversity of landforms including dunes, arches, canyons, buttes, and escarpments. Park museum collections have more than 35,000 geological specimens and nearly 416,000 paleontological specimens.
More Designated Geoheritage Sites
Many other federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service, in addition to state and local governments, also manage exceptional examples of America’s geoheritage.
Undesignated Geoheritage Sites
Importantly, designated sites are complemented by a wealth of undesignated sites scattered throughout the United States. These undesignated areas represent important pieces of our geologic heritage and add to overall geodiversity. For example:
These sites are important because they provide insights into local and regional Earth history and processes. Undesignated geologic heritage sites near where people work, live, and play provide countless opportunities to touch nature and enjoy the outdoors.
NPS Conservation Assistance Programs
In addition to geoconservation in park units, the National Park Service also coordinates several programs that offer recognition or conservation assistance for areas that are not units of the System.
National Heritage Areas (NHA) are designated by Congress. Each National Heritage Area is governed by separate authorizing legislation and operates under provisions unique to its resources and goals. For an area to be considered for designation, the landscape must have nationally distinctive natural, cultural, historic, and scenic resources that, when linked together, tell a unique story about our country.
NHAs are a grassroots, community-driven approach to heritage conservation and economic development. Through public-private partnerships, NHA entities support historic preservation, natural resource conservation, recreation, heritage tourism, and educational projects.
The National Natural Landmarks (NNL) Program was established by the Secretary of the Interior in 1962, under authority of the Historic Sites Act of 1935 (16 U.S.C. 461 et seq.) to identify and encourage the preservation of the full range of geological and biological features that are determined to represent nationally significant examples of our natural heritage.
The National Registry of Natural Landmarks includes nationally significant geological and biological features in 48 states, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Designation in no way infers any right of public access. National Natural Landmark designation is not a land withdrawal and does not change the ownership of a site.
The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places is part of the national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources.
To be considered eligible, a property must meet the National Register Criteria for Evaluation. Properties associated with geoscience events, activities, and the lives of geoscientists who were important in the past would be eligible for consideration. The National Register nomination process usually starts with your State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO).
World Heritage Sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet certain selection criteria. Outstanding Universal Value means cultural and/or natural significance that is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.
The Secretary of the Interior, through the National Park Service, is responsible for identifying and nominating U.S. sites to the World Heritage List. Proposed U.S. sites must be either federal property or sites already designated as National Historic Landmarks or National Natural Landmarks. Private properties are nominated only if their owners wish to do so and pledge to protect their property in perpetuity.
Last updated: January 26, 2024