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The U.S. Geological Survey Mineral Resources Program Five-Year Plan, 2006-2010

Introduction - Historical Background

Clarence King, the first Director of the USGS, faced an enormous challenge when he set about establishing the bureau in 1879. USGS historian Mary Rabbitt describes the year in which the Survey was established as one of great monetary uncertainty, when knowledge of precious-metal resources was vital, and one in which the iron and steel industry faced problems in obtaining suitable raw materials, while information about the Nation's mineral wealth, mining and metallurgical techniques, and production statistics was meager (Rabbitt, 1989, p. 11).

As a result, the focus of the early work of the USGS was on mining geology and included comprehensive studies of the geology and technology of three great mining districts: Leadville in Colorado and the Comstock and Eureka in Nevada. The diversity among these three mining districts provides a look at the range of challenges facing mining in the United States in the late 1800s. The Leadville mining district was just coming into production. The Eureka mining district was in its prime and thought to be completely developed. It was also the subject of litigation about what constituted a lode in terms of mining law. The Comstock mining district was near the end of its production life; when it was studied by the USGS, $300 million in bullion had been removed from the district. The results of these studies provided guidance to miners on where to look for new deposits and helped investors select prospects. Two years after the USGS was established, the success of reports like these prompted Congress to broaden the agency's purview beyond Federal land to all U.S. lands.

USGS Director King recognized the importance of mineral statistics to the economy of the United States. Realizing that the closure of the quicksilver (mercury) mines in California could significantly affect production at a great number of gold mines in Georgia where mercury was used to recover gold, King advocated the need for mineral statistics. The scope of information necessary to make mineral statistics useful justified the collection and analysis at the Federal level of government. King did not limit the collection of mineral statistics to production data; he envisioned the collection of sample locality descriptions, geologic settings, and mineralogical and chemical data as well. These early data collection activities provided the beginnings for the large databases currently supported by MRP. Although responsibility for collection and maintenance of minerals information has been moved in and out of the USGS over the years and the types of statistics that are collected, analyzed, and disseminated have changed over time, the need for accurate minerals information persists, and meeting the need is currently an important function of MRP.

In 1904, the USGS report highlighting the first 25 years of the bureau recorded that Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1867 for $7,200,000, but for thirty years it remained practically forgotten. The events of 1898 revived public interest in the Territory, but general knowledge of it is still very limited (USGS, 1904, p. 33). In 1895, Congress appropriated $5,000 for the investigation of the gold and coal deposits of Alaska, but interest in Alaska truly blossomed in 1898 when rich gold deposits were discovered in the Klondike region, triggering a massive gold rush. Interest in mineral resources has remained high in Alaska, and the USGS has supported major mineral investigations over the years. Large-scale projects to assess potential for undiscovered mineral deposits in Alaska began in the 1960s and continue to the present. These large-scale mineral resource assessments have resulted in the identification of a number of areas with mineral potential and, in at least one instance, led to development of a major mine, TeckCominco's Red Dog Mine, the largest zinc mine in the world.

World War I changed popular views on mineral resources. When war broke out in 1914, it was assumed that the conflict would last only a short time. The United States was believed to lack adequate supplies for its needs in only five minerals—tin, nickel, platinum, nitrates, and potash. But the war disrupted normal trade, threatening European allies who relied heavily on the United States for steel, copper, and explosives. By the time the United States entered the war in 1917, the concept of the identification of sources of strategic minerals had been born as it became clear that domestic supplies of key commodities were inadequate in quantity, quality, or both. In support of the war effort, mineral geologists were sent throughout North, Central, and South America in search of strategic minerals. In 1938, strategic mineral investigations were begun with funds from the Public Works Administration. The Strategic Minerals Act, passed in June 1939, appropriated funds for strategic minerals studies only days before the beginning of World War II.

In the post war era, interest in strategic minerals remained high, but there was a renewed focus on assessing the mineral resource potential of Federal lands. The concept of wilderness areas that were closed to development, including mining, had been formalized by the U.S. Forest Service in 1924 with the designation of the Gila Wilderness in the Gila National Forest, New Mexico. The Wilderness Act of 1964 designated 54 National Forest System areas as wilderness (9.3 million acres) and required a study of each area as to its suitability or nonsuitability for wilderness. In addition, included in the provisions of the Wilderness Act was a requirement for the Secretary of the Interior to direct mineral surveys of suitable areas under his jurisdiction in the National Park and National Wildlife Refuge Systems. In 1965 the USGS began mineral resource assessments of the areas designated in the Wilderness Act; work on those areas was completed in 1983. However, the requirement for mineral surveys was repeated in subsequent land acts and understood to apply to many others acts and many areas managed by Federal land management agencies. Faced with the requirement to provide mineral resource assessments for huge tracts of land, USGS mineral scientists have developed genetic and empirical mineral deposit models and used those models as the basis for revolutionary methods and techniques to perform quantitative mineral resource assessments. These mineral deposit models and mineral resource assessment techniques and methods have been updated over the years and continue to be an area of cutting edge research in MRP.

Map of mineral resource assessment survey locations.
Locations of mineral resource assessments conducted between 1964 and 1994 in partnership with Federal land management agencies in support of decisions regarding designation of wilderness areas.

In the mid- to late-twentieth century, a number of laws were enacted that reflected the growing awareness of and concern about environmental contamination, both naturally occurring and related to abandoned mine lands. Techniques and methods that had been developed in MRP to support the large-scale mineral-resource assessments were essential to the effort to understand geoenvironmental concerns related to the thousands of abandoned mines that exist on Federal lands administered by the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture. Scientists supported by MRP have been crucial contributors to the interdisciplinary effort to understand environmental degradation associated with abandoned mine sites and continue to supply accurate information to land managers who administer the Federal lands. Understandings of the processes behind observed problems are being applied well beyond the boundaries of Federal lands, both domestically and internationally, and the MRP-funded research is now contributing systematic information required to support a broad range of public health and ecosystem research objectives.

The last decade of the twentieth century saw rapid evolution of powerful techniques for management, visualization, and dissemination of large data sets; this evolution continues in the twenty-first century. Because of its increasing reliance on descriptive and quantitative geospatial data, MRP has invested heavily in data conversion and standardization, as well is in development of data delivery tools that put high quality data and information directly into the hands of partners in land management, other government agencies, private industry, and academia. As these tools become more sophisticated, and as MRP's partners and customers become more able to access the data when and where they require it, USGS research results will be increasingly useful to a diverse group of partners and customers.

The most recent MRP five-year plan was released in November 1999, following a review of the program by the National Research Council in 1996, transfer of the minerals information function from the defunded Bureau of Mines, development of the USGS Geologic Division Science Strategy (Bohlen and others, 1998), and several rounds of internal review and investigation of opportunities for future work. That plan was broad in its coverage and general in its description of program work. The science goals established for MRP at that time were:

  • Goal 1: Understand the geologic setting and genesis of the Nation's mineral resources in a global context, in order to ensure a sustainable supply of minerals for the Nation's future.
  • Goal 2: Understand the influence of mineral deposits, mineralizing processes, and mineral-resource development on environmental integrity, ecosystems, public health, and geologic hazards.
  • Goal 3: Provide objective information and analysis related to minerals issues to support those who make decisions regarding national security, land use, resource policy, and environmental or public health and safety.
  • Goal 4: Collect, compile, analyze, and disseminate data and develop and maintain national and international databases for timely release of information to all users.
  • Goal 5: Apply mineral-resource expertise and technologies to non-mineral-resource issues.

All projects funded by MRP since 1999 have addressed one or more of these goals and considerable progress has been made in each. Success in working towards these broad goals has made possible this new five-year plan, which provides clear expectations against which MRP's progress can be measured.

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