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July 07, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Cover story: Reading the Earth -- For 50 years, scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park have broadened knowledge of our restless Earth Cover story: Reading the Earth -- For 50 years, scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park have broadened knowledge of our restless Earth (July 07, 2004)

By Marion Softky
Almanac Staff Writer

January, 1954: When the first 120 employees of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) moved into a new building on the grounds of the former Dibble Army Hospital in Menlo Park, they could hardly have foreseen the dramatic advances in earth sciences and safety that they and their successors would achieve.

Since that date, USGS scientists have broadened knowledge about earthquakes, landslides, and volcanoes. They have mapped Alaska and the ocean floor, discovered minerals and oil, and contributed to understanding how our Earth works.

Now the USGS is celebrating its 50th anniversary in Menlo Park, at the same time the national organization marks its 125th anniversary. Throughout the year there will be public lectures and exhibits on the Menlo Park campus at 345 Middlefield Road. Lectures the last Thursday of every month will highlight the work of the Survey. Exhibits, including old photographs of the early days of mapping the West, are on display in the entrance and corridors of Building 3 by the flagpole. They are open during work hours on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

The campus itself is a key, if little known, destination in Menlo Park. Its 16 acres feature an arboretum with a huge display of camellias and rhododendrons collected by geophysicist Howard Oliver of Menlo Park, together with exotic trees, and punctuated by -- not surprisingly -- specimen rocks.

The history of those 50 years reflects three intertwined themes: science learned from the Earth; the intrepid people who make the discoveries; and the government institution that has made all this happen.

"Science always has a personal connection," the late geophysicist Allan Cox once told the Almanac. Mr. Cox was one of the team of USGS scientists who measured reversals of magnetism in rocks from all over the world. Working in a tarpaper shack that once housed the laundry at Dibble hospital, they developed a magnetic clock of the Earth's history, which confirmed the theory of plate tectonics.

Mr. Cox would compare this breakthrough in earth sciences in the 1960s to Darwin's theory of evolution in biology, or to quantum mechanics in physics. A resident of Skylonda, Mr. Cox went on to become dean of earth sciences at Stanford, and died tragically in a bicycle crash in 1987.

The pinkish-brown tarpaper shack, which was designated a National Historic Landmark, has been torn down; parts of it are on display in the Survey's new Rock Magnetics Laboratory.

Tradition of exploration

The group of earth scientists who gathered in Menlo Park in 1954 followed a tradition dating back to 1804, when Lewis and Clark set out to open a continent.

The U.S. Geological Survey was established in 1879 to build on the great surveys of the West, carried out by Clarence King, its first director, and others. From 1881 to 1894, John Wesley Powell, the one-armed visionary who first explored the Grand Canyon, shaped USGS into what has become a world flagship for research in earth sciences.

In Menlo Park 50 years ago, scientists from all over the West gathered to create the Western Region Headquarters that would manage research in nine western states and some territories.

As earthquakes happened, volcanoes blew, and minerals needed finding, the Menlo Park headquarters grew to accommodate some 2,000 people housed in almost two dozen buildings between Redwood City and Palo Alto. As of 1999, the region included 127 offices, laboratories and observatories employing 2,600 people.

The range of activities is awesome. The 50th anniversary Web site ( lists 25 research areas ranging from astrogeology and the birth of plate tectonics, to the earthquake hazards program, marine geology, and volcano warnings at Long Valley (near the Mammoth Mountain ski and recreation areas).

After 40 years of accomplishment by the Survey, the mid-1990s brought a seismic shift and tremors to the USGS itself.

Seismic shift at USGS

The first jolt came in 1994, when the Republicans took over the House of Representatives. Their "Contract with America" targeted the whole USGS for elimination.

While the Survey was saved then, a later downsizing, reorganization, and dispersal of functions left the Menlo Park operation smaller and more focused on service to customers than basic research.

The phrase "curiosity-driven" was out; "customer service" was in. Part of the reorganization was to add the biological survey to USGS.

The downsizing was traumatic in Menlo Park. In 1995, 158 people -- many of them senior scientists -- were fired; another 62 were demoted or reassigned. In all, one-third of the 650 people in the Geologic Division, most of them local residents, suffered a personal earthquake.

"They're destroying research," said one fired scientist, who reflected a sense of betrayal and mourning that was widely felt for a once-great scientific institution.

The Menlo Park headquarters survived another jolt in 1999, when then-director Gordon Eaton directed the Menlo Park offices be closed. An uproar by local residents who felt more secure because of the local earthquake hazards programs, and the congressional delegation led by Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Atherton, saved it once again.

Now, some 600 people work at USGS in Menlo Park. But functions have dispersed; Menlo Park is no longer the western regional headquarters, but the Menlo Science Center. The regional director, biologist Douglas Buffington, is now based in Seattle, Washington; Chief Geologist Wesley Ward is in Tucson, Arizona; and numerous functions have migrated elsewhere.

"It was never official; it just evolved over time," says Deputy Regional Director Brian Cole in an interview. Mr. Cole, an oceanographer who has worked on studies of San Francisco Bay, has been in charge of the Menlo Park center for four months. "The idea was to put our presence over a wide geographic area in the West."

What next?

Ironically, just as USGS in Menlo Park was laying people off and downsizing, it was also building a new $42 million building facing Middlefield Road. And in the process, the federal General Services Administration ended up owning the land, and charging rent to USGS. The lease is up at the end of 2008, and officials are already trying to negotiate a rent with GSA that will allow the agency to stay in Menlo Park.

"It will be a difficult transition. I expect somewhat less space," says Mr. Cole. "But I fully expect to be here."

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