Full Text View

Volume 27 Issue 11 (November 2017)

GSA Today

Bookmark and Share

Article, pp. 4–5 | Abstract | PDF (275KB)


Cover Image

Cover Image

Table of Contents

Search GoogleScholar

Search GSA Today



Classic Geologic Outcrops: Preservation and Future Accessibility

Marjorie A. Chan1*, Diane L. Kamola2*

1 Dept. of Geology & Geophysics, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112, USA
2 Dept. of Geology, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas 66045, USA


Geologists are privileged to work in some of the most remarkable, beautiful, and remote areas on the Earth. As professionals, we must care for important outcrops so they can continue to enlighten and educate earth scientists well into the future. Rock archives of valuable information, and access to these outcrops, can be destroyed by a few thoughtless actions. Accessible, exemplary geologic sites are visited by numerous individuals and field-trip groups each year. The consequences of unauthorized access, and the impact of rock hammers, painted section numbers, drill plug holes, and other evidence of increasing visits to these classic sites has serious consequences. In order to protect continued access for students and researchers, we, as a geologic community, must act responsibly by getting proper permits where required, conserving and protecting classic localities, and respecting land-use rules. In the following, we discuss a few examples of the preservation and accessibility of classic outcrops we have studied for years, recognizing that similar issues are prevalent globally.

*Emails: marjorie.chan@utah.edu, kamola@ku.edu

Manuscript received 16 Apr. 2017; Revised manuscript received 15 June 2017; Manuscript accepted 21 June 2017; Posted online 3 Aug. 2017

©2017, The Geological Society of America.

Geoconservation, Ethical Issues, and Challenges

Geoconservation focuses on recognizing and preserving unique sites and landscapes that have important scientific value and add to our quality of life. Some efforts have resulted in global designations for UNESCO Geoparks and World Heritage sites (e.g., O’Halloran et al., 1994; Burek and Prosser, 2008). The U.S. National Park Service protects many beloved landscapes, but other public-owned lands with remote sites are difficult to manage with limited resources. Vandalism of outcrops on public land has occurred on classic sites, such as the exposure of the Moab fault in Bartlett Wash near Moab, Utah, USA (B. Trudgill, 2017, pers. comm.). In this instance, people without required permits from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) cut a chunk of rock with deformation bands from a pristine outcrop exposure adjacent to the fault, leaving a gaping hole (Fig. 1).

Figure 1Figure 1

A well-visited exposure of a splay off the Moab fault near Moab, Utah, USA. (A) The eolian Jurassic Slickrock Member of the Entrada Sandstone (Je) is juxtaposed against the Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation (Kcm). Credit: M. Chan. (B) A ~ 60 cm chunk of slickrock sandstone was cut and removed in 2011 without proper permission and BLM permits. Credit: B. Trudgill.

At another highly visited locality (Tuscher Canyon) in the Book Cliffs, numerous drill holes were cut into world-class exposures of hummocky cross-stratified sandstone of the Cretaceous Blackhawk Formation (Fig. 2). The scarring is permanent, despite later efforts to fill the drill holes.

Figure 2Figure 2

Unsightly drill holes mar a classic exposure of hummocky cross-stratified sandstone in the Cretaceous Blackhawk Formation of Tuscher Canyon, near Green River, Utah. Credit: D. Stolz.

Sadly, these are not isolated incidents. Great outcrops deserve respect. We must protect Earth’s library of information; a photo is never the same as seeing a geologic feature in outcrop. While modest and discreet sampling of some outcrops is critical to advancing our science, there is no legitimate reason to deface a classic outcrop.

Numerous classic outcrops on private land have been accessed by geology groups for decades, and are important for teaching basic concepts and skills to the geologic community (Mogk, 2004). A prime example is the Cretaceous of the northern Book Cliffs, near Helper, Utah, USA. Numerous field trips routinely stop at Gentile Wash (Fig. 3) to observe classic fluvial-dominated delta front and shelf turbidites in the Panther Tongue (Newman and Chan, 1991; Van Wagoner et al., 1990; Olariu et al., 2010), or to see classic wave-dominated parasequences of the Blackhawk Formation (Van Wagoner et al., 1990; Kamola and Van Wagoner, 1995). The number of groups at times makes it seem like you have to take a number and wait your turn to see these outcrops!

These Cretaceous outcrops are on private property; access now requires a request submitted 30 days in advance and subsequent written permission. Recently, a group with students parked unauthorized vehicles on the property. When asked by an agent of the owner if they had permission to be on the property, the group said that they were associated with a local state university (an unverifiable claim that later put some local universities under scrutiny) and falsely claimed permission to access the outcrops. Although many visitors are well-intended educational groups, continued unauthorized access could jeopardize access for all of us in the future.

Figure 3Figure 3

Many students enjoy the Cretaceous out­crop exposures at the mouth of Gentile Wash, near Helper, Utah, USA. The current property own­er has procedures to accommodate field trips with advance written permission.

Looking Forward

As GSA continues to look at issues of both geoheritage and ethics, it is important that our society helps educate the membership on field conduct that is in the best interest of our whole community. We make three specific recommendations:

  1. Act responsibly, remediate sites, and whenever possible leave no trace. Teach outcrop etiquette to students, assistants, or volunteers who participate in fieldwork. Ethical behavior is paramount, because field-trip leaders, faculty, and professional scientists are role models. Unethical behavior could have serious repercussions, such as limiting private land access and, in severe cases, even criminal prosecution (Foss and Liggett, 2016).
  2. Understand and follow land-use rules and policies; obtain permission to access outcrops on private land. Specialized details of land ownership can be hard to find. Ways to ascertain property access include (a) contact local or published experts who
    have previously worked in the area;
    1. query state geological surveys;
    2. check land ownership plat maps; and (d) consult with government land managers or local law enforcement groups. If in doubt, always ask for permission, because government and private land owners frequently welcome the communication.
  3. Uphold high ethical standards for yourself, and encourage your colleagues to do the same. As a community, our good field conduct helps ensure safety, communication, and continued access to classic outcrops. There are many rich localities that we want future generations to be able to visit for an enjoyable learning experience.


We thank John McBride and David Mogk for their helpful reviews to improve this paper.

References Cited

  1. Burek, C.V., and Prosser, C.D., 2008, The history of geoconservation: An introduction, in Burek, C.V., and Prosser, C.D., eds., The History of Geoconservation: Geological Society (London) Special Publication 300, p. 1–5, https://doi.org/10.1144/SP300.1.
  2. Foss, S.E., and Liggett, G.A., 2016, Unethical and criminal behavior by professional geoscientists on public lands: Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs, v. 48, abstract no. 38-5, https://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2016AM/webprogram/Paper287803.html (last accessed 29 June 2017).
  3. Kamola, D.L., and Van Wagoner, J.C., 1995, Stratigraphy and facies architecture of parasequences with examples from the Spring Canyon Member, Blackhawk Formation, Utah, in Van Wagoner, J.C., and Bertram, G.T., eds., Sequence Stratigraphy of Foreland Basin Deposits: American Association of Petroleum Geologists Memoir 64, p. 27–54.
  4. Mogk, D.W., 2004, Access to field sites: A growing concern for geoscience education: Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs, v. 36, no. 5, p. 156, abstract no. 62-17, https://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2004AM/webprogram/Paper80948.html (last accessed 29 June 2017).
  5. Newman, K.F., and Chan, M.A., 1991, Depositional facies in the Upper Cretaceous Panther Tongue Member of the Star Point Formation, Wasatch Plateau, Utah, in Chidsey, T.C., ed., Geology of East-Central Utah: Utah Geological Association Publication 19, p. 65–75.
  6. O’Halloran, D., Green, C., Harley, M., Stanley, M., and Knill, J., editors, 1994, Geological and Land­­scape Conservation: Geological Society, London, Proceedings of the Malvern International Conference 1993, 530 p.
  7. Olariu, C., Steel, R.J., and Petter, A.L., 2010, Delta-front hyperpycnal bed geometry and implications for reservoir modeling: Cretaceous Panther Tongue delta, Book Cliffs, Utah: American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin, v. 94, p. 819–845, doi:10.1306/11020909072.
  8. Van Wagoner, J.C., Mitchum, R.M., Campion, K.M., and Rahmanian, V.D., 1990, Siliciclastic sequence stratigraphy in well logs, cores, and outcrops: Concepts for high-resolution correlation of time and facies: American Association of Petroleum Geologists Methods in Exploration Series, no. 7, 55 p.