'I Felt Like a Geology Ambassador'

Volunteering for Park Duty

What would compel a geologist to give up a well-earned university sabbatical or dust off a rock hammer and come out of retirement to spend three months alone mapping the geology of some of America's most remote and rugged national parks and national forests?

Add to that, working as a volunteer, bunking in at local ranger stations and leaving friends and families behind?

With financial support from a growing number of non-profit geological associations, a group of highly-skilled and dedicated geologists is winning rave reviews and becoming great role models as volunteers in the Geoscientist-in-the-Park program run by the National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service (USDA Forest Service).

A love of geology, a desire to share their knowledge of earth sciences with the general public and a sense of duty to give something back to society have prompted these geologists to volunteer their skills and time.

Equally important, these geologists are making significant contributions to the resource management of the national parks and national forests through the integration of geological processes.

The United States' 387 national parks have a resource management staff comprising about 900 biologists and 68 geologists. Of these 68 geologists, fewer than a third actually work as field geologists or interpreters.

And funding is always an issue, according to Judy Geniac , environmental protection specialist with the NPS' Geologic Resources Division and manager of the Geoscientist-in-the-Park (GIP) program.

"There's simply not enough geologists to go around," Geniac said. "We need all the expertise we can get."

What started out as a "grass roots" effort seven years ago has grown to a program that will see several hundred applicants compete this year for 85 GIP positions in the NPS and 15 positions in the USDA Forest Service. The NPS and the USDA Forest Service provide sponsorship by supplying room and board for the GIPs.

GIP volunteers come from all walks of life — students, high school geology teachers, academics, and working and retired geologists.

"We have just been overwhelmed by the top-notch GIP candidates and by their professionalism," Geniac said, adding that, in some cases, the three-month GIP projects have led to full-time or seasonal positions with the NPS.

Making a Difference

Geoscientists working with and for the country's parks operations is not without precedent.

The Geological Society of America, through its GeoCorps America™ Program, seeks to increase the number of geoscientists working on public lands, enhance the knowledge and management of natural resources, mitigate geological hazards and raise the public's awareness of geological resources on public lands.

GeoCorps America last year expanded its sponsorship to include USDA Forest Service. Managing 192 million acres of land, the USDA Forest Service employs 130 geologists nationwide.

The project also funded stipends for 20 geologists last year to participate in the NPS-run GIP program, and an additional 15 stipends for geologists in the USDA Forest Service. This year it will fund stipends for 20 of the 85 GIP positions run by the NPS, and another 15 positions in the USDA Forest Service.

"It's our top outreach program," said Julie Sexton, GeoCorps America's program officer. "We don't have any other program that comes close to the numbers and levels of outreach."

According to Sexton, the USDA Forest Service was so impressed by one of the 2001 GeoCorps America participants that they are paying for her college tuition, and have guaranteed her a job upon graduation.

Image Caption

Brittina Argow, assistant professor at Westchester Community College, New York volunteered her summer of 2000 at the Cape Cod National Seashore Park

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What would compel a geologist to give up a well-earned university sabbatical or dust off a rock hammer and come out of retirement to spend three months alone mapping the geology of some of America's most remote and rugged national parks and national forests?

Add to that, working as a volunteer, bunking in at local ranger stations and leaving friends and families behind?

With financial support from a growing number of non-profit geological associations, a group of highly-skilled and dedicated geologists is winning rave reviews and becoming great role models as volunteers in the Geoscientist-in-the-Park program run by the National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service (USDA Forest Service).

A love of geology, a desire to share their knowledge of earth sciences with the general public and a sense of duty to give something back to society have prompted these geologists to volunteer their skills and time.

Equally important, these geologists are making significant contributions to the resource management of the national parks and national forests through the integration of geological processes.

The United States' 387 national parks have a resource management staff comprising about 900 biologists and 68 geologists. Of these 68 geologists, fewer than a third actually work as field geologists or interpreters.

And funding is always an issue, according to Judy Geniac , environmental protection specialist with the NPS' Geologic Resources Division and manager of the Geoscientist-in-the-Park (GIP) program.

"There's simply not enough geologists to go around," Geniac said. "We need all the expertise we can get."

What started out as a "grass roots" effort seven years ago has grown to a program that will see several hundred applicants compete this year for 85 GIP positions in the NPS and 15 positions in the USDA Forest Service. The NPS and the USDA Forest Service provide sponsorship by supplying room and board for the GIPs.

GIP volunteers come from all walks of life — students, high school geology teachers, academics, and working and retired geologists.

"We have just been overwhelmed by the top-notch GIP candidates and by their professionalism," Geniac said, adding that, in some cases, the three-month GIP projects have led to full-time or seasonal positions with the NPS.

Making a Difference

Geoscientists working with and for the country's parks operations is not without precedent.

The Geological Society of America, through its GeoCorps America™ Program, seeks to increase the number of geoscientists working on public lands, enhance the knowledge and management of natural resources, mitigate geological hazards and raise the public's awareness of geological resources on public lands.

GeoCorps America last year expanded its sponsorship to include USDA Forest Service. Managing 192 million acres of land, the USDA Forest Service employs 130 geologists nationwide.

The project also funded stipends for 20 geologists last year to participate in the NPS-run GIP program, and an additional 15 stipends for geologists in the USDA Forest Service. This year it will fund stipends for 20 of the 85 GIP positions run by the NPS, and another 15 positions in the USDA Forest Service.

"It's our top outreach program," said Julie Sexton, GeoCorps America's program officer. "We don't have any other program that comes close to the numbers and levels of outreach."

According to Sexton, the USDA Forest Service was so impressed by one of the 2001 GeoCorps America participants that they are paying for her college tuition, and have guaranteed her a job upon graduation.

Recently convocated with a B.S. in geology from Ohio State University, AAPG student member Linda Centeno spent last summer as a participant in the Inyo National Forest in the eastern Sierra Mountains of California.

"I wanted to do something fun and exciting," Centeno said. "What I actually did is learn some geology. I got to use geology in everyday, real life situations."

Her project consisted of preparing an inventory of the more than 300 abandoned mines, then documenting their potential hazards to the environment and to visitors.

While at Inyo, Centeno bunked in the Forest Service barracks with the fire fighters, trail crews and wilderness rangers.

How does she feel about that?

"My internship at the Inyo National Forest," she said, "has been the best experience of my life."

Apparently, she's not alone:

➤ AAPG member Bob Spoelhof is a retired geologist who also is making a difference.

According to Spoelhof, his 30-year career in petroleum geology prepared him for his GIP work at Grand Canyon National Park (North and South Rims), eventually leading to a paying position as a Park Ranger (Interpretation).

"I was always a generalist," Spoelhof said. "I spent a good bit of my time exploring for oil and gas in the Rockies. I came to the parks understanding the stratigraphy and structural history of the Rocky Mountains."

Spoelhof will spend this summer in Yellowstone National Park working with Lori, his wife and fellow Park Ranger (Interpretation).

Spoelhof said that many park visitors ask him about drilling for oil and gas in the national parks and national monuments — and he gives them his perspective, based upon his career in the petroleum industry.

"The national parks are rich repositories for not only minerals or oil and gas," he said, "but for trees and medicinal plants."

➤ AAPG member Bob Rose , another retired petroleum geologist and former GIP participant, hopes that more retired geologists will volunteer for the program.

"Retirees have the experience," said Rose, a 35-year industry veteran who spent two seasons as a GIP interpreter and stratigrapher at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, located on the south shore of Lake Superior, Michigan.

Rose's third GIP season involved mapping the geology at the 40-acre Pipe Spring National Monument and the adjacent Kaibab Paiute Indian Reservation, situated in northwest Arizona.

Rose's task at Pipe Spring National Monument — an area steeped in American Indian and Mormon pioneer history — was to determine why the water was there. During his project, he worked collaboratively with a hydrologist from the U.S. Geological Survey, and created a geological cross-section through the spring that illustrated the relationship between it and the surrounding geology.

Rose also noted — and corrected — some geological errors in the standing displays at the monument.

"I might have been the first person to have ever given a geological interpretation of that particular 40 acres," he said.

Annabelle Foos is a geology professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, specializing in geochemistry and clay mineralogy with applications to environmental geology, petroleum geology, soil science and economic geology. In May she completed her volunteer work as an AWG-sponsored GIP in Zion National Park, where she spent her three month-sabbatical mapping the relic terraces of the Holocene age Hop Valley Lake and collecting sediment samples for paleomagnetic age dating.

Petroglyphs by ancestral Pueblo Indians abound in the park, and many of them are covered by lake deposits of unknown age.

Foos discovered that what the NPS had previously described as ancient lake deposits were in fact alluvial sediments. Further, Foos reclassified the Pueblo drawings from petroglyphs to "picture graphs" (in other words, images painted on and not carved into, the rocks like petroglyphs).

Foos's excitement is contagious when she describes seeing "Virgin Anasazi" picture graphs some 600 years old.

"I felt like a geology ambassador," Foos said of her three-month GIP project. "The role of the geologist is to help protect the biological and archaeological resources in the parks.

"We want to demonstrate to the resource managers that geology is an important part of the ecosystem."

Zion National Park will benefit in numerous ways from her involvement — the data that she collected will be analyzed at the University of Akron, becoming part of the university's research into the terrestrial record of environmental change.

➤ Combining the disciplines of geology and botany, Catherine Crumpton worked as an AWG-sponsored GIP in Big Bend National Park from September to December 2001, studying the distribution of a rare desert cactus. Echinocereus chisoensis, commonly known as the Chisos hedgehog cactus, has been listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The cactus is indigenous only to Big Bend National Park. Bordering Mexico on the Rio Grande, the park encompasses 800,000 acres of diverse Chihuahuan desert landscape that includes mountains, desert grasslands, badlands and deep river-cut canyons.

As a geo-ecologist, Crumpton mapped the geologic "parent" materials of the soils, which have a direct correlation on the distribution and abundance of many rare plants in Big Bend. During the project, Crumpton collaborated with soil scientists from the National Resource Conservation Service.

Crumpton honed her mapping skills in using aerial photos and geological maps, and increased her knowledge of soil science and sedimentology. Working independently in the field, she used a hand-held Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) instrument to record key data including geological strata, soil types, bedrock, plant cover and micro-topography. She entered the field data into a GIS (Geographic Information System), integrating it with geologic and soil type maps for the park.

Crumpton developed a habitat suitability model that she used to predict 37 additional sites — based upon key criteria — where populations of the Chisos Hedgehog cactus might be found. The model passed with flying colors in the field.

"I was flabbergasted," Crumpton said. "Using the model, I could actually go out and find new populations of cactus."

Her model now will also be used south of the border in Mexico to map potential habitat for this rare cactus.

Geniac is excited by Crumpton's findings.

"We can use geology as a tool to help manage ecosystem resources, including threatened and endangered species," she said. "The NPS could not believe how much Crumpton had accomplished in just three months."

Joe Sirotnak, botanist with Big Bend National Park, is equally enthusiastic about Crumpton's findings.

"No one had looked at the distribution of this cactus from the substrate point of view," Sirotnak said. "Having the expertise of a trained geoscientist allowed us to look at it from the ground up, literally."

"The Chisos Hedgehog cactus is threatened," Crumpton explained, "because its flower is so beautiful that private collectors and cactus pirates enter the park to steal the plant." Standing 20 to 30 centimeters high, this small, barrel-type cactus doesn't bloom and bear fruit until it is four to six years old.

"All this for a flower that lasts only two days."

A desire to work outside in the desert environment of western Texas led Crumpton to abandon her office job as a bookkeeper eight years ago and pursue a B.S. in environmental sciences. At 49, Crumpton describes herself as a "non-traditional student."

After graduating this spring with a M.S. in geology, she'll return to Big Bend to commence a paid position in a hydrology project focusing on grassland restoration.

Brittina Argow is an assistant professor at Westchester Community College, New York, where she teaches earth sciences, oceanography and physical geography. In 2000, during her summer teaching break, she worked as an AWG-sponsored GIP with the Cape Cod National Seashore Park, studying the ecology and geology of the Herring River estuary that has been negatively impacted by the construction of a dike in 1908-09 and by subsequent dredging.

Argrow waded into an emotionally-charged controversy surrounding the status of the dike — whether to remove it or maintain the status quo. Her teaching and communication skills proved invaluable to the success of the GIP project. Equipped with scientific data on the ecosystem, geology, geography and sedimentology of the area, she presented her findings to a divided audience at public meetings.

Working collaboratively with the Massachusetts State Coastal Zone Management and the town of Wellfleet (population 2,493), Argrow tried to find the delicate balance between meeting the needs of the environment and the needs of diverse stakeholders, including landowners, shellfishermen, boaters, local residents and businessmen.

The park provided Argow with housing, the town with office space and the AWG with funding for the project.

"It was very important to my credibility with the general public of Wellfleet that I had third party funding," she said.

"Green equals healthy" was the first misconception that Argow had to dispel amongst the general public of Wellfleet. Disturbed land, according to Argow, is frequently colonized by invasive plant species. During her research, Argow documented the presence of invasive woody shrubs living at elevations below mean high tide that were not salt tolerant.

"My primary focus," she said, "was to explain this scientific data in clear English so that everyone could understand. As an outsider, I made it clear that this estuary ecosystem was not healthy."

Over a period of 90 years, the dike prevented the natural process of saltwater exchange or tidal flushing in the Herring River. Without the pressure of tidal waters, the local aquifer increased its discharge into the marsh, causing the water table to drop from mean high tide level to mean sea level. Large areas of the salt water marsh became completely drained. Dried out salt marsh peat contains a strong concentration source of pyrite: aerial exposure caused oxidation of the pyrite, releasing sulfur into the water. The water acidified, with pH values measuring as low as 3.5. Summer fish kills were common.

What lessons did Argow take away from this GIP project?

"In some sense, I got a really good appreciation of how difficult it is to be an idealist, and how important it is to be a scientist," Argow said. "I have got to teach my students how to separate facts from interpretation."

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