Rocks: A trendy resource
National forests ripe for picking
By SONJA LEE
SONJA LEE Tribune Staff Writer
Photo credit: TRIBUNE PHOTOS BY STUART S. WHITE
Forest Service geologist Vernon Cromwell inspects a large slab of Flathead sandstone in a quarry near Monarch.
James Johnson is a hard-core rockhound.
If his pockets and socks are stuffed with mineral treasures and he comes upon a great rock, he simply tucks a garnet or two in his mouth and trots down the trail with his cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk.
"I just appreciate the beauty of them," said Johnson, a retired C.M. Russell science teacher.
Johnson isn't alone in his fascination for rocks. A growing number of rockhounds are plucking everything from pebbles to boulders from around Montana for a variety of uses.
The trend has folks at the Lewis and Clark National Forest spreading the word that they've got rocks to offer -- and people don't have to haul them out just by the pocketful.
Tony Malisani of Malisani Inc., a Great Falls company that does custom stone fabrication, said rock-related projects just keep rolling into his business.
"You can't believe the level of excitement," he said.
The rock gardens that people started discarding in the '70s, for example, are back in style. Malisani said customers often call and tell him about the rocks they found and what they want made from them.
"Then people just show up with a trailer filled with rock," he said.
Stone walkways, retaining walls, benches, monuments and fireplaces are in demand. Malisani currently is drilling through a field rock from Shelby to create a planter.
Commercial signs built with stone are popular, too. At the Montana Sub Shop, Jimette and Carl Schlimm found just the right rock east of Great Falls, and Malisani created the notable sign at their 9th Street South location.
Jimette Schlimm said people regularly comment on the sign, even if neon might have been more of an attention grabber.
"It just seems to fit the more relaxed atmosphere we were looking for," she said.
Mike Hollern, who owns the Great Falls business The Yardist, discourages lawns these days.
"It's the sixth year of drought around here," he said. "It's hard to keep a lawn in this country."
Rock-filled yards, with native, hardy shrubbery and plants worked into the landscape, are increasingly popular, he said.
Hollern primarily works with glacial till or granite that glaciers brought down from Canada millions of years ago.
"It's gorgeous, and it doesn't break," he said.
Hollern harvests most of his rock from area farms and ranches north of Great Falls. He depends on a 30-year-old backhoe and a 40-year-old truck.
"And I use man's oldest tool -- the lever," he said. "Give me a good place to stand, and I can move the Earth."
Kim Fagenstrom, part-owner of Fagenstrom Co., works mostly with rock that comes from places other than the Little Belts.
Rock pickers collect the stones, and Fagenstrom sells them.
But Fagenstrom does use some Montana rock.
Moss rock, or local rock covered in moss, sells well.
He also uses local sandstone that is tan in color and comes from a quarry south of Great Falls.
The Cascade County Courthouse, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, is made of similar indigenous sandstone, quarried from a site six miles southwest of Gore Hill. The rock sold now, however, isn't cut and chiseled like the slabs used 100 years ago.
Wolf Creek slate, which is bluish green in color, is popular for walkways and fireplaces, Fagenstrom said.
Rocky Mountain Quartzite from Idaho and Black Brown Slate from Helena also are sold in thick, flat pieces and are easy to work with, he said.
Rocks for free
By filling out a permit at any ranger station or district office, anyone can collect as much as a couple of tons of rocks -- free -- from national forest land.
Vernon Cromwell, a geologist with the Lewis and Clark National Forest, said few people know that they can drive into a national forest and take an entire truckload of rocks.
There are at least two national forest quarries filled with native rock ripe for the picking less than 60 miles from Great Falls. The pits aren't filled with gems like garnets, but they are spilling with such rocks as Neihart Quartzite and Monarch Sandstone.
"It's just like making streams available for fishing or trees available at Christmas," Cromwell said. "This is just another benefit of public lands."
Both types of the more common quarry stone, known for bands of tans, reds and maroons and hints of crystal, can be used for outdoor decoration, barbecues, walkways or fireplaces.
The Power Coulee Quarry is three miles south of Monarch on Highway 89 near the Rotary Camp Bridge. The Slide Rock Quarry is six miles south of Neihart not far from the Silvercrest Winter Recreation Area. In the Judith Ranger District, the Cross Creek Quarry also is open.
And Cromwell always is looking for new areas to open to rock hunters.
"If you find a great spot for rock, just tell me where it is," he said.
Quarries aren't the only places to find rock in the forest. Rock slides and other areas are good for picking, he said, "and if you want to clean out our burrow pits, that's fine."
Officials ask only that people not tear big stones from creek banks or interrupt fish and wildlife habitat. Rock hunters also need to make sure they are on forest land before gathering their treasures.
Cromwell says forest rock pickers come in three varieties.
“The first type picks up a cool, individual rock and tucks it away. These folks may be rock collectors, or they may simply enjoy having a nice stone.
“The second type takes rocks, often in large quantities, from slide areas or quarries.
Those who want a pickup load or up to 5,000 cubic yards of rocks in a year need a free use permit from the Great Falls district office or a ranger station.
The permits are used to track the number of people using the land and determine if more quarries or resources are needed.
Also, getting the rocks takes a lot of hard work and hauling. If heavy equipment is needed, the Forest Service asks that rock collectors discuss their plans with officials.
“The third harvester takes rock from a quarry to sell. Again, a permit is required, and the profits, 15 to 20 percent, must be shared with the Forest Service.
Cromwell said between 15 and 20 people a year ask for permits to harvest rock for themselves or to sell.
The Forest Service has no shortage of rock, and people capable of hauling their own should look at national forest quarries before spending money on commercial rock, he said.
"If there is a specific rock you want, call the national forest, describe it," Cromwell said. "They might have just what you are looking for and tell you just where to go to get it. Think of it just like all the other shopping you do."
While the trend of using stone could fade, there's enough current demand that some people are considering opening new quarries.
"I've talked to at least six people in the last year who are thinking about trying to quarry sandstone," Malisani said.
Warren McCullough, chief of the environmental management bureau of the state Department of Environmental Quality, said there are 18 active quarries in the state with operating permits.
"It can be a lengthy process to get an operating permit," he said. "But it's certainly easier to permit a quarry than it is to get a permit for something like a gold project."
Near Great Falls, there is one large-scale quarry, he said. It's full of Shonkinite, which is known for its glossy black appearance and stubby crystals. Shonkinite is prevalent in the Highwood Mountains.
There are about 532 small mining operations in Montana, and 104 of them are aimed at rock. A growing number of people harvest rocks from farm fields, he said.
"This is one of the few areas of mineral extraction that has been growing these days around here," McCullough said. "Every time we go into the field, we pass two or three more that we didn't know about."
The DEQ is working on regulations to keep up with the increased interest, he said.
"We are trying to come up with a more efficient way of dealing with these," he said.
The two Forest Service quarries near Great Falls contain Flathead Sandstone, also known as Monarch Sandstone.
It was used to pave streets in the early 1900s and has been used on a variety of buildings. Cathedrals and wineries in Calgary and Spokane also are faced with the rock. The impressive rocks in front of the Cub's Den Resort on Highway 89 near Monarch are Flathead Sandstone.
And many national forest signs are made of the sandstone.
"Once your eyes get used to it, you see it all over the place," Cromwell said.
Throughout the Little Belts, Flathead Sandstone and Neihart Quartzite are the first sedimentary rock over the "basement" rocks. Cromwell classifies gneiss, schist and granite, more common rocks, as basement rocks.
Neihart Quartzite is about 1.5 billion years old, in contrast to Flathead Sandstone, which is a mere 550 million years old, said geologist David Baker of Monarch.
To put that in perspective, when Neihart Quartzite formed, the highest life form was algae. The quartzite, which also is tan and includes crystal-like characteristics, is basically wind-blown beach sand.
The trailhead to Memorial Falls is Neihart Quartzite.
Unfortunately the rock is difficult to work with, said Baker, owner of Little Belt Consulting Services.
"This rock is so tough that when you hit it with a hammer the sparks fly," he said.
The much softer Flathead Sandstone is easier to handle.
In Great Falls, a great deal of landscaping is done with lava rock, river pebbles and white quartz. Most of those rocks are available at such retail outlets as Home Depot.
"But you can get stuff that is amazingly unique and ancient and fits in with the local landscape for free in the forest. It also gives you an excuse to get outside and a cool story to go with it," Cromwell said. "The fact that it's free barely even matters."
Forest stone often is spotted with lichens in a variety of colors. Large slabs or standing stones also are popular and easy to find in the quarries.
The Belt Supergroup is the rock covering about one-third of Western Montana, including Glacier National Park and about 20 percent of the Little Belts. It formed 1.4 billion to 1.5 billion years ago, when a supercontinent finally pulled apart.
The Little Belt Mountains are a giant fold, or dome, that is 80 miles long and 30 miles wide.
Looking at the Little Belts from Great Falls, the crest of the fold is, oddly, the lowest point that can be seen between Thunder Mountain and Big Baldy. That big fold formed about 60 million years ago, as part of the Rocky Mountains.
All the other peaks in the Little Belts are laccolith, intrusions where molten rock flowed between layers of shale and sandstone. The top layers bulged upward as the molten rock intruded.
Those intrusions are a type of rock called porphyry, like Porphyry Peak in the Little Belts.
Quartzite heated by an intrusion, like the porphyry, is baked, causing the sandstone to become a harder rock, Cromwell said. The Power Coulee Quarry rock is maroon, red and tan where those intrusions created a superior stone.
"That's why people later built those quarries there," Cromwell said. "You can find nice schist and granite everywhere. Only here in this part of Montana, specifically in the Little Belt Mountains, do you find this quality of quartzite."
River rock and sandstone aren't the only minerals that pique people's interest.
There's always the lure of panning for gold or collecting crystals, agates, sapphires and garnets.
The Butte area is rich with rock. McCullough said one of his favorite finds is covellite, a metallic, iridescent blue rock that is about 4,000 feet down in Butte's old Leonard mine. It's underwater now, and one of the easiest ways to turn up a bit of Montana covellite is to visit eBay.
Johnson, the Great Falls collector, says his primary interest is sapphires. To dig for sapphires, people typically need permission to visit a private claim.
The yogo sapphire is a vibrant cornflower blue and can be found just southwest of Utica. It's one of only a few colored gemstones in the world that doesn't require heat treatment to enhance its color.
Johnson said crystal also is easy to spot, particularly at Crystal Park near Butte. Thanks to an agreement between the Forest Service and the Butte Mineral and Gem Club, which holds mining claims, visitors to the park can camp and dig for quartz crystals.
So with a little hard work and a lot of patience, most everyone in Montana can find the rock they're looking for.
"You never know when you will find a pretty rock," he said. "It might not be an amazing mineral specimen, but it's still a pretty rock."
Originally published Sunday, August 15, 2004