Two basic concepts pertaining to the history of the Heart Mountain fault of northwestern Wyoming have recently been challenged; one, that there was tectonic denudation, and two, that volcanic rock of the Wapiti Formation was deposited on the exposed fault surface. Tectonic denudation is believed to have occurred as a consequence of the upper plate having broken into numerous blocks that separated as movement progressed along a nearly horizontal fault surface, thus leaving the fault surface exposed between blocks. Volcanic rocks of the Wapiti Formation were then deposited both on the exposed fault surface and against and over the upper-plate blocks. Two formations of Eocene volcanic rocks are involved. The older volcanic unit, the Cathedral Cliffs Formation, and the Paleozoic carbonate rocks are part of the upper plate of the Heart Mountain fault and moved with it, whereas the younger Wapiti Formation was deposited on the fault surface after movement had ceased.
In an alternate interpretation recently advanced by T. A. Hauge, subdivisions of the Absaroka Volcanic Supergroup, of which the Cathedral Cliffs and Wapiti Formations are units, are not recognized. The upper plate of the Heart Mountain detachment is interpreted as having been a single, continuous allochthon composed largely of volcanic rocks with small amounts of Paleozoic rocks. During Heart Mountain faulting, extension of the once-continuous slab of Paleozoic sedimentary rock is alleged to have been accompanied by the formation of ten or more grabens, now filled predominantly by Absaroka volcanic rocks. This interpretation further proposes that the volcanic rocks were emplaced while the separating blocks of Paleozoic strata were still moving and that the basal part of the volcanic rock between these blocks is in fault contact rather than depositional contact with the strata beneath the Heart Mountain fault.
Many lines of geologic field evidence indicate that the Wapiti Formation is younger than the Heart Mountain fault and was deposited on the technically denuded fault surface. (1) Wapiti rocks bury the break-away fault. (2) Fault breccia at the base of the upper-plate carbonate blocks is composed entirely of carbonate fault breccia and has no volcanic component. (3) Small blocks of upper-plate rocks have been displaced by gravity from the upper part of the allochthon to the detachment fault surface. (4) Eocene stream-channel deposits locally cut into the surface of tectonic denudation and also have been displaced on the Heart Mountain fault. (5) The volume of Wapiti Formation filling the spaces between allochthonous blocks in proportion to the volume of those blocks is much too great for the Wapiti to have been allochthonous. (6) Clastic dikes of carbonate fault breccia penetrate Wapiti volcanic rocks. (7) Some of these clastic dikes of fault breccia contain Precambrian xenoliths and wood phenoclasts requiring surface exposures of the fault breccia before injection as dikes. (8) Wapiti volcanic rocks having chilled borders are in tightly bonded contact with upper-plate Paleozoic rocks. (9) Faults present in the upper-plate blocks do not penetrate the overlying Wapiti Formation. (10) Volcanic fault breccia is absent where volcanic rocks overlie carbonate fault breccia. (11) A mound of carbonate fault breccia is not mixed with overlying Wapiti Formation.
The continuous allochthon interpretation is based on several erroneous assumptions that cannot be supported by field observations. (1) Faults to transport and emplace the Wapiti Formation onto and along the Heart Mountain fault do not exist. (2) The contact between volcanic rocks and the allochthon west of Corral Creek at the west end of Cathedral Cliffs, cited by Hauge as a fault in an extending allochthon, is a depositional contact. (3) The volcanic rock adjoining allochthonous Paleozoic rocks north of Pilot Creek cannot be part of an extending allochthon because (a) it is Cathedral Cliffs Formation, which is pre–Heart Mountain fault, and (b) its direction of movement is horizontal rather than down dip, as required in an extending allochthon. (4) Most of the igneous dikes were intruded after the Heart Mountain fault movement ceased, and so they could not accommodate significant extension of the upper plate. (5) Striae reported as indicating fault emplacement of volcanic rock (Wapiti Formation) on the Heart Mountain fault actually lire flow features, formed as the Wapiti Formation was deposited on the exposed fault surface.
Tectonic denudation is the only model that is consistent with evidence observable in the field. Although the process by which tectonic denudation was accomplished remains enigmatic, tectonic denudation remains a constraining fact in any model for the origin of the Heart Mountain fault.