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Is there gold in them thar' hills? Chances are there's enough dust to set off an epidemic of gold fever.

Or how about yttrium? There are tons of the space-age material, used in lasers, hiding in Utah's rocks.In fact, Utah's diverse geology contains many of the world's most valuable and coveted minerals. The question is not so much if Utah has these valuable resources, but just where they can be found.

"Nevada's going crazy with people looking for gold," said Utah state geologist Genevieve Atwood. "It's so hot you have to draw a number to get on the outcrop. And here we are right next door to Nevada. Do we have gold? You bet we do. The question is finding it. We have six known deposits, three operating mines and six new prospects just this year."

Under a new program, the Utah Geological and Mineral Survey is contracting with private geologists to find clues to Utah's diverse and puzzling geology. For example, Bill Parry, a University of Utah geologist, will use cutting-edge technology to study the chemistry of black shale deposits of Utah and compare them to black shale deposits in Nevada that are rich in gold.

Another geologist, Harvey Merrill of Moab, has received a contract to catalog uranium deposits in Grand County. His research will be based almost entirely on personal experiences; he spent decades traipsing southeastern Utah's canyon country looking for uranium deposits.

"There is a lot of geological information already out there," said Doug Sprinkel, deputy director of the Geological and Mineral Survey. "And the more information available on the state's geology, like potential gold deposits, the more willing industry will be to locate in Utah."

The uranium industry may be depressed now, said Sprinkel, but 15 years from now it will probably bounce back. When it does, the state will be ready with published reports on the location and magnitude of its uranium resources - information information that will save the uranium industry considerable time and expense.

"If Harvey Merrill dies or moves away, years and years of knowledge he attained walking the deserts will be lost," said Atwood. "Now we will have that information published for everyone to use."

The Utah Geological and Mineral Survey, headed by Atwood, has been charged by the Legislature to identify geological resources and hazards, and advise state agencies and decisionmakers on the development of those resources and the mitigation of geological hazards.

However, the agency doesn't have the staff or the expertise to address all of Utah's geology. Where most states have one, maybe two, different types of geology, Utah has three types (Colorado Plateau, Rocky Mountains and Great Basin), each of which present different challenges and economic opportunities.

"We don't have experts on our staff for every facet of Utah's diverse geology," said Atwood. "Instead, we tend to generalize. We have a strong emphasis on coal and the bigger economic resources, but the smaller ones are missed."

For example, the state has no expert on uranium, even though the state has considerable uranium resources. The Utah Geological and Mineral Survey also does not have a paleontologist or a minerals geochemist.

Because the state has so many different types of geology, there are many geologists in the public and private sectors who specialize in different aspects. The Utah Geological and Mineral Survey has decided to take advantage of the state's existing geological expertise by contracting with private individuals for published research and information on their research.

For the second year in a row, the Legislature has appropriated about $100,000 of the state's share of oil and mineral lease revenues for private research contracts, said Atwood. "This year, we are focusing on proposals concerning economic geological resources."

While some of the research may seem esoteric to the non-professional, geologists say the information is critical to new development and the economic vitality of industries dependent on the state's natural resources.

"These contracts are seeds that hopefully will come to fruition later on," Sprinkel added.

The research contracts are small, averaging about $8,000 each. "People aren't going to get rich doing this," Atwood said. "Most have a sincere desire to share their research."

For example, Parry will receive $9,600 for his research, almost all of which will be used for laboratory expenses. The personnel costs will come out of his own pocket.

"He couldn't afford to do it without funds for the lab work," said Sprinkle. "We provide the ignition for people, like Parry, to get over a financial hurdle."

Even with the small size of the contracts, there has been no shortage of applicants. This year, the agency received 41 proposals for research from geologists in the university, industrial and private sectors.

Those 41 proposals will be whittled down to "those things the state most wants, but can't do with the staff we have."