Getting To Know The National Domain

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The agency that was born with a $106,000 appropriation in 1879 will have a budget in 1979 of about $773,000,000. But its operations and services, not its budget, should be its justification. In 1979 it was mapping at an unprecedented rate, and coordinating all government map data through its National Cartographic Information Center. It was appraising the source, quantity, quality, and movement of the nation’s water resources. It was exploring, developing, and environmentally rehabilitating the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, taken over from the Navy. It was continuing and refining the job of mineral resource assessment that began more than a century ago. It was evaluating resources and regulating leases on federal lands, Indian lands, and the outer continental shelf. It was deeply involved in the study and prediction of earthquakes and other earth hazards, including landslides and floods. Its trainees had walked on the moon, its petrologists and crystallographers were analyzing moon rocks and Martian dust. It was boring into sea bottoms and studying the earth’s plate boundaries in the effort to understand vulcanism and the formation and changes of continents. While surveyors used to ride a mule and carry a theodolite from high point to high point, technicians in 1979 were photographing the earth from special planes, and interpreting data sent back from Landsat satellites.

Powell would not recognize some of the techniques, but few of the problems would be strange to him. And the motivation—to provide reliable information on matters that the public has the right to know—would be completely familiar. In that sense, the Geological Survey, like the Bureau of Ethnology, has accomplished what this extraordinary public man had hoped, back when both were innocent-appearing riders to a Sundry Civil Appropriations Bill a century ago.