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Guest Post: The Rocks are Always Greener – Volcanoes and Land Accessibility

This is the first of a few guests posts that will come up while I’m out in the field in the Sierras. Today’s post is my a longtime friend of mine from Oregon State University, Dr. Mariek Schmidt. She has worked on volcanism in as varied locations as the central Oregon Cascades to Mars and now spends a lot of her research time in the desert southwest. She is current an assistant professor at Brock University in St. Catherine’s, Ontario. I hope you enjoy her look at the realities of field work as volcanologist/petrologist.


The Rocks are Always Greener – Volcanoes and Land Accessibility – Dr. Mariek Schmidt

The ideal: Majestic volcanoes in lofty inhospitable public lands that are free to study by anyone who can reach them by foot, car, helicopter, horseback, or cross-country skis. 

The reality: Many lesser known volcanoes are distributed throughout western North America and sit on private property (farm, ranch, estate, or Indian* land).

Barbed wire fences crisscross the landscape, including Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Forest lands.  When fences are encountered, geologists stop briefly to throw gear over to the other side and use their hammer to hold up the wire for field partners. We feel impervious to property lines and to the law and think, what is the worst that could happen? We’re told to leave, or a minor fine? 

We work in places where people rarely go and we usually get away with hopping across a fence to pick up a sample.  Given the effort (generating ideas, writing grants, training students) and expense (travel and time) that we put into our research, our samples and the data we extract from them are infinitely more valuable to us than to most landowners. Contacting landowners is always a good idea, but often times, they are absent or unreachable.  For the most part, as long as we’re friendly and present business cards, the people who we encounter or from whom we ask permission are generally amenable.  Some are so interested in what we are doing that they invite us inside their home for a coke. 

Recently, while doing fieldwork in New Mexico, I was among a group of three geologists who were charged with criminal trespass.  We knowingly crossed a fence into corporate ranchland to collect from a high silica trachyte dome that represents the differentiated endmember of a compositional suite.  In other words, it was a high value target for us.  As a Canadian resident with limited research funds and property lines changing from year to year, it was nearly impossible to tell ahead of time which side of the property line the dome sat on.  Forest service maps do not include many geographic features.  So we went for it.  As we were about to cross back over the fence, a warden from the National Fish and Game Department drove up to us and took our information.  All involved were civil, friendly even, and he left it to the landowner whether to press charges. 

Basanite scoria cone in Cibola National Forest in New Mexico.  Property line cuts the cone in half.

One month later, I received a summons to answer to the misdemeanor charge.  If we failed to show up at the appointed time, a warrant would be issued for our arrest.  The maximum penalty for criminal trespass is $1000 fine and/or 364 days in jail.  Two of us had to fly across North America to travel to the magistrate court in Gallup, N.M. to be fingerprinted and arraigned by a judge.  (After dealing with shoplifting and domestic disturbances, the judge seemed genuinely surprised to see us!) We had to hire a lawyer.  We plead ‘not guilty’ because we had not malicious intent to vandalize, destroy property, or poach animals.  Now a court date is set for later in July and we expect to be acquitted, although anything is possible. This whole this is costing each of us two to four thousand dollars.

If they didn’t want us to cross, why the happy little skull and flimsy fence posts?

So what did I learn from this?  We should have tried harder to learn the status of the land before traveling all that way to do the fieldwork.  We should have made more of an effort to contact the landowner.  But faced with the same choice again, I’d probably do the same.  Geologists cross fences, cutting holes in our work pants so that we can eat our lunches on the dirt next to cow pie bombs.  It’s in our blood.

Are my trespassing experiences the worst that can happen?  Does anyone else have similar stories to share?  And how are land access issues different is other parts of the world?  I guess one way to avoid this issue is to go planetary where all data are publicly available on the PDS.

* I do not condone crossing into American Indian lands without permission; it is a violation of their sovereignty.  Rocks can have spiritual significance.  They talk to me, so why not to them?

* For that matter I also do not condone collecting without a permit from National Park land; these places are protected.  I do admit to taking small bits of pumice from Crater Lake and obsidian from Yellowstone and I bet that most geologists could admit the same!

Dr. Mariek Schmidt is an assistant professor of volcanology and igneous petrology at Brock University in Ontario. 

Top left: Bandera crater in Cibola county, New Mexico


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