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A gold mine of information

It’s difficult to overstate how much Idaho’s natural environment has shaped the development of the state.

The makeup of the Legislature still reflects the ranchers who settled Idaho to make a living outdoors. The state is home to at least a dozen major mining operations, and countless smaller ones; it was gold mining that brought the first permanent settlers here. And agriculture accounts for fully one-third of the state’s GDP.

All that information and more will be on display this fall with a new map from the Idaho Geological Survey. The map, which goes on sale Oct. 19, shows regular features like mountains, rivers, towns and roads.

But it also includes details on rocks, faults and strata – their ages, their natures, and much more.

The map, which covers 2.7 billion years of geologic history, is a tool for hydrologists, conservation biologists, transportation workers and the like.

But it’s an exciting development for geology outsiders like me, as well. More than any other state I’ve visited except, perhaps, Utah, Idaho is rich in cultural and tourist attractions related to its geology. On family trips, we’ve stopped to pry fossils out of roadside banks. We’ve pulled over to read signs detailing the timelines that accompany geologic history.

Wallace Stegner, whose 1971 Angle of Repose is perhaps the best-known novel about early Idaho, based his story on an engineer who journeyed to Idaho for mining and ended up dabbling in a host of other areas, such as irrigation, with mixed success. Some of his most moving passages described the geological features he saw around him in Idaho.

It took the IGS 10 years, a slew of experts and sponsors, and help from Idaho State University to put the map together, and the timing couldn’t be better. Like so many state agencies, the IGS, which is based at the University of Idaho, has suffered steep cutbacks in state funding over recent years. From a high of $874,800 in 2008, the state appropriation, which makes up about half the IGS’s budget, has been cut almost 20 percent to $701,200 in this fiscal year. The first printing of 3,000 of the maps, at $20 each, could make up some of that shortfall. And with the legislative session approaching, this is an opportune time for state geologists to rev up some interest in the work they do.

This map is far more than a tool for the scientists scouring Idaho’s landscape for minerals, energy, water and other opportunities. It’s also a valuable guide for all of the amateur geologists who travel to Idaho to see features you can’t see anywhere else. Idaho has the third-greatest geothermal power potential in the country, after Nevada and California, according to the Bureau of Land Management. It has the only state capital heated by geothermal resources.

In only two places on Earth can you dig up a star garnet. One is India. The other is northern Idaho, which also features a fossil bed of intact tree leaves preserved since the Miocene era on 15-million-year-old rocks. A Bucknell University plant genetics professor, Chris Martine, traveled to tiny Clarkia this past summer to make a movie about that fossil bed.

Idaho’s business leaders often talk about polishing the state’s image. They have exhausted the pitches about potatoes. They’ve tried to laud the state’s technology economy, anemic as it is. Idaho’s forests, mountains and white water are famed attractions, but that, too, is well known.

Well, what about rocks and minerals? Granted, most of the calls that the map’s co-author, University of Idaho Geology Prof. Loudon Stanford, receives from would-be tourists concern the best sites for finding gold.

But Stanford and his map co-author, U of I Geology Prof. Reed Lewis, want to do much more. Given the time and money, they’d like to stimulate interest in Idaho’s geology. They hope someday to create a map like Colorado’s, which incorporates highways, tourist attractions, and geology for visitors who want some ancient history along with their sightseeing.

The new map could be the start of something big. The Idaho Division of Tourism does a good job of pointing visitors to a few geologic sites, but it takes an expert to steer people to the best attractions and put them in context. Let’s add Idaho’s geologic wonders to the skiing, rafting, and hiking we advertise around the country and around the world.

Anne Wallace Allen is managing editor of the Idaho Business Review.

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.