Budget cuts bury paleontologists

Park Service thins program at Dinosaur National Monument

  • END OF AN ERA: Paleontologist Earl Douglass removed more than 350 tons of fossils and attached rock from Dinosaur National Monument

    Special Collections Department, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah

JENSEN, Utah - More than 90 years after they were first discovered, the bones at Dinosaur National Monument still draw thousands of tourists each year. Fixed between layers of sandstone in a sort of bas-relief skeletal jumble, the treasure trove of fossils here has also made the monument a sought-after research post for paleontologists from around the world.

Scientific work at Dinosaur has maintained a feverish pace since 1909, when paleontologist Earl Douglass discovered a mass of Jurassic Period fossils. He extracted nearly a dozen skeletons from the area and inspired President Woodrow Wilson to designate the site as a national monument in 1915.

Today, Douglass' finds are still on display at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. And in the past decade, paleontologists with the National Park Service have reconstructed the ecology of the Jurassic Period using 150 million-year-old animal and plant fossils from the monument.

But this October, Chas Cartwright, the new superintendent for Dinosaur, announced that he plans to eliminate nine positions in the paleontology department, and hand future scientific work to private contractors. It's a move, some scientists claim, that will strip the monument of its world-class reputation and cripple paleontological research. "It's a disaster," says Nick Fraser, with the Virginia Museum of Natural History. He's depended for years on the monument staff's expertise to help him find and prepare fossils at the site. In particular, he says, paleontologists are outraged over the loss of monument experts Scott Madsen and Dan Chure, two of the top scientists in the field.

"On-site expertise is essential for recognizing a specimen's importance," says Chure, noting that scientists from the United States, Europe and Japan have worked with the monument staff to great success. Chure, who has been at the monument for 23 years, and Madsen, who has been there for 15, collaborated with outside scientists 10 years ago to find a spectacularly complete Allosaurus - a Jurassic meat-eater.

Superintendent Cartwright maintains that paleontology will still be central to the monument. "It reflects an overall change in all the land-management agencies," he says. In order to streamline operations throughout the park, Cartwright says, he's moving away from managing and sponsoring scientific projects in-house. He plans to replace the paleontology staff with a single scientist, who will oversee all earth science-related issues in the park and seek grants and collaborative projects with outside researchers.

Cartwright's decision to cut Dinosaur's science budget has come just as the Park Service is facing two expensive ventures. Monument officials are negotiating to buy private ranchland within the monument that belongs to the Mantle family (HCN, 10/22/01: Park boss gored by grazing feud). In addition, officials began construction in October on a new science museum, just as monument officials announced that promised funds for the project won't be available until 2008.

Nevertheless, many paleontologists say the scientific importance of the monument should transcend budgetary concerns. Park Service officials seem surprised by the scientists' emotional reaction, says Utah State Paleontologist Jim Kirkland, "but they don't seem to pick up on the symbolic aspect of eliminating the jobs."

The author lives in Casper, Wyoming, where he is working on a biography of Earl Douglass. His first book, Bone Wars, won a 2002 Spur Award from the Western Writers of America.

You can contact ...

  • Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, 202/265-7337;
  • Dinosaur National Monument, www.nps.gov /dino.
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