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.
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 geoheratage 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.
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.
Geoheritage Conservation Communities
In the United States and across the globe, communities have worked to protect geologic heritage resources for many decades. Conservation efforts require many groups with different skill sets. Each community working within its sphere of influence and expertise can help make geologic heritage relevant to its constituents and develop links with other communities. When these communities join efforts, geologic heritage resources and people benefit from better conservation, science, and educational programs.
Artists celebrate the aesthetic values of geologic heritage in story, song, and visual representation. In doing so, they also promote awareness of the deep emotional connection and cultural relevance of our geologic heritage. Artists and photographers play a major role in bringing these issues to our attention, and inspiring active stewardship of geologic heritage.
Environmental alliances, citizen scientists, recreational groups, and outdoor enthusiasts from many different types of clubs are ardent explorers and supporters of geologic heritage sites. They contribute to the body of geologic knowledge in significant ways and can be effective in advocacy related to conservation and public projects. Groups such as the Sierra Club have been instrumental in saving and preserving significant geologic areas including Yosemite Valley and Mount Rainier.
Businesses often recognize the exceptional economic value of geologic resources, as well as the development potential associated with tourism and recreation at geologic heritage sites. The tourism industry has become a major part of the effort to support recognition of geologic heritage.
The economic value of mineral and energy extraction can compete with conservation, but such factors can also lead to creative collaboration in meeting both interests. The history of mining is an important part of the nation’s geologic story which is often best told by working with industry support.
Educators convey geoscience concepts in both formal education environments, such as schools and universities, and informal settings, like parks and science museums. Educators have the important role of teaching Earth science concepts and creating meaningful and relevant learning opportunities related to geologic features and processes. Geologic heritage sites provide ideal classrooms and teachable moments for this body of knowledge.
Our elected officials, from the local to the national level, craft legislation to establish new, or conserve existing, geologic heritage sites. Their legislation also provides funding critical to managing the sites. Politicians meet with local citizens to discuss the values associated with geologic heritage areas and how best to provide legislation to support them.
Historians study the people, places, stories, and events that together define our culture. Almost every American historical narrative is inextricably linked to the geologic landscape where events have taken place. Historians recognize the traditional uses and cultural significance of geologic heritage sites and are often important advocates for preservation of their cultural values.
Land managers play a central role in supporting geologic heritage. The responsibility of day-to-day management of special geologic sites, such as parks or recreation areas is often tasked to federal, state, and local government agencies. Landuse managers work within their mandates to conserve the values of these places for future generations while making them accessible to current visitors, as well as compatible mineral or energy resource development.
Museum professionals interact with other scientists, educators, and the general public to promote the exploration of our natural world, conserve important objects, and share curated collections. Museum professionals may display specimens and facilitate education programs about the history of Earth and life to build a wider understanding of our relationship to the planet. Museum specimens (minerals, fossils, rock samples) are important pieces of our geologic heritage.
Scientists explore the nature of the planet and share knowledge of Earth materials and processes. They help to determine the scientific value of geologic heritage sites, as well as understand their ecological values. Geoscience agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey, in addition to state geologic surveys, universities, professional societies, and museums maintain scientific data and promote understanding of Earth’s systems, monitor changes in those systems, and enhance our ability to predict future changes that could impact society.
U.S. Geoheritage and Geoparks Advisory Group
The United States has established the U.S. Geoheritage and Geoparks Advisory Group as a program development activity of the U.S. National Committee for the International Union of Geological Sciences, sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences. The advisory group works to:
Last updated: June 18, 2020