Monday, November 16, 2015

Pieces of State ~ Samples from State Geological Surveys

When I recently visited the website of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey (aka, the Wisconsin Geological Survey), I was surprised to find that I could buy pieces of the state . . . literally.  So I did.  For $35 (plus $7.50 for postage), the Survey sent me a selection of 15 Wisconsin rocks, minerals, and a fossil.

I was even more pleasantly surprised when the set arrived.  Solely in terms of its sheer weight, the set is impressive, coming in at approximately 6 pounds.  And, even better, the Survey didn’t send little, dinky samples; rather, I had spread before me rather sizeable chunks of rocks and minerals, among them calcite, basalt, zinc ore, iron ore, and dolomite (these specimens are pictured below).

This rock and mineral set is just one way the Wisconsin Survey fulfills its educational mission, a mission the Survey clearly takes quite seriously.  Accompanying this material is the informative Wisconsin Rocks & Minerals, by Meredith E. Ostrom and Roger M. Peters (ES046, 2012) which describes, in detail, the rocks and minerals represented by the specimens in the set.

What prompted me to buy this collection, in the first place, was the supposed inclusion in it of the Wisconsin state fossil, the Silurian trilobite Calymene celebra.  I mentioned this trilobite in my previous post in which I took the novelist Steinbeck to task (perhaps too harshly) for a line he wrote about ancient Wisconsin geology and paleontology (My Apologies, John Steinbeck, But I Care About Things Like This).  The Survey website was in error (since corrected); what I received, instead, was a modest slab of sandstone from the Eau Claire Formation covered with a rich stew of molds and casts of pieces of the cephalon (head), thorax, and pygidium (tail) of Cedaria woosteri, a much older trilobite from the Cambrian.   On the left is a picture of the full slab, on the right is a closeup of a section of it.

Besides the fossil error on the website, there were a few other hiccups in the acquisition of this set of rocks and minerals (such as the loose piece of sandstone included in the set which did what sandstone is supposed to do – break around individual crystals – leaving the box reminiscent of the aftermath of the trip to the beach with the kids).  Still all of that is outweighed by the quality and amount of material I was received.

In fact, I was so taken with this set (and hoping that lightning would strike twice) that I set out to determine whether other state geological surveys sell to the public similar sets with pieces of their state.

First, though, a little background on state geological surveys which are state-funded entities.  According to a committee of the American Institute of Professional Geologists,
The state geological surveys serve our country in a significant role by providing unbiased and sound scientific research, geologic data and maps, and reports to the public, industry, academia, government agencies as well as local, municipal, county, state, and federal legislators and regulators.  (Importance and Future Roles of State Geological Surveys, undated)
I’ve written about state geological surveys on this blog before (State Geological Surveys – Rare Moments of Civilized Joy in the Quest for Online and Free, November 7, 2010).   If their online presence is any evidence, these state-funded entities vary quite remarkably, one from the other.  Some appear more robust and substantial than others (indeed, there isn’t one in Hawaii), and some seem to be about serving and educating the public more than others (for instance, the Iowa Survey’s website has an Education and Outreach tab that opens to reveal a page dated October 3, 2014 with the message:  “Coming soon!!!!!!!!!!!!”).  Of course, some of this may have to do with how fully and effectively they’ve embraced being on line.

Nevertheless, I believe what one finds online partly reflects key structural and programmatic differences among the state survey entities.  That same committee of the American Institute of Professional Geologists observed,
The responsibilities of the surveys vary somewhat from state to state, depending upon the enabling legislation, the specific needs of each state and the traditions under which each survey evolved. . . .  About one-third of the state geological surveys function under a state university system while the other two-thirds operate as part of state government, either as a stand alone agency or as part of a larger state governmental entity.  Most state surveys are non-regulatory whereas some have enforcement duties.
Basic message:  state geological surveys are a mixed bag.

With that as context, let me share what I found when I recently visited (from October 28 to November 8) all of the state geological surveys’ websites in search of state-specific rocks, minerals, and fossils for sale, either individually or in prepackaged set.  The results were disappointing, to say the least, particularly for this inveterate collector of fossils (and, on occasion, rocks and minerals) and given that I’d started with the Wisconsin Survey (which had given me such high hopes).  I found only 12 state surveys from which I could buy specimens (these specific sites were revisited on November 16):

* Arizona
* Arkansas
* Connecticut
* Missouri
* Montana
* Nevada
* New Jersey
* Pennsylvania
* South Carolina
* Texas
* Wisconsin

During these revisits, I found that the website of the 12th, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy, from which I recently purchased a rock set (see below), is undergoing construction and the specific webpage is not now available.  (Things certainly are fluid out there.)

With the haphazard layout of some survey websites, it’s possible I may have missed one or two surveys that sell specimens, but I doubt it.  Also, I would stress that these sites do not all provide for online sales.  Further, the Montana link above is to a page which simply and briefly describes the "Mineral Museum Gift Shop."  I have assumed from the pictures there, that one could visit the gift shop in person and purchase rocks and minerals.

The inclusion in the list above doesn't mean that a state offers a set of specimens comparable to that from Wisconsin.  Though several have sets of rocks and minerals from their state for sale, for the most part these appear to include rather small specimens.  The one I purchased from the Virginia Survey (“The Boxed Set of Twenty Rocks and Minerals from Virginia,” $10.50), pictured below, represents one approach:  little specimens glued into a display box (a pretty display, but, frankly, probably not something to go out of your way for):

The Virginia set does include a piece of petrified wood from Chesterfield County, Virginia, as well as a cryptic note on the box lid that these items are “from the collection of Rudolph J. Bland, Jr.”

A few of these survey sites (e.g., Arizona and Connecticut) link the visitor to a state-sponsored store selling books and other merchandise, including rocks, minerals, and, infrequently, fossils.  Some, but not all of what’s for sale, comes from the state in question.  For instance, Connecticut’s site offers a set of fossils that were collected around the world and around the U.S., though not in Connecticut.  I would note that Connecticut's rock and mineral set ($15 and an additional $4.95 for postage) does provide a nice selection of modestly sized Connecticut specimens, certainly on the Wisconsin end of the spectrum of these sets.

I’ve thought a bit about whether state geological surveys should be in the business of selling rocks, minerals, or fossils from their states to the general public, and am inclined to endorse the activity.  It makes sense to me as part of the surveys’ mission of educating the public.  And, hey, if these sales are moneymakers, then the case is even stronger (I cannot believe these entities are generally well-funded by their states).  Is there a supply side issue that needs to be taken into account, one that precludes more agencies from selling specimens?  For instance, the Arkansas Survey’s website notes that state rock and mineral packets are available for classroom teachers (and for sale to the general public), but that packets wont be provided for students to take home “due to decreasing resources and inventory and increasing costs of shipping the rock packets.”  Maybe one sees it as a bit unseemly for a state entity to be quite so commercial with the objects in its scope of responsibility.  But, in light of the history of the origins of state geological surveys in the 19th century, it may be totally appropriate.  It would appear that they have long had a commercial side as well as a resource management mission.  They largely came into being to support the internal improvement and development of states, particularly road and canal building, and to identify the locations of rocks and minerals that could be mined.  This commercial impulse was also often married to an educational one.  (See, Walter B. Hendrickson, Nineteenth-Century State Geological Surveys:  Early Government Support of Science, Isis, Volume 52, Number 3, 1961.  It is hiding behind a paywall.) 

In the final analysis, few state geological surveys do this and, as luck would have it, I started with Wisconsin which does it apparently best of all.

Nature Blog Network