Dinosaur National Monument Cutting Paleontology Staff

Should we be concerned that the Park Service is reducing the paleontologoical staff at Dinosaur National Monument? Northern Arizona University photo.

The Blue Ridge Parkway without a landscape architect. Grand Canyon without a staff geologist. Mount Rainier without a volcanologist. Dinosaur National Monument without a paleontologist.

Is this how we want the National Park Service to operate?

Back when Fran Mainella was the Park Service director, there was a battle over whether Park Service jobs would be outsourced to private contractors. That battle eventually was beaten back.

Or was it?

After all, there seems to be a serious drive in the Park Service to use more and more volunteers out in the field, at Gateway National Recreation Area the superintendent supports the leasing of aging structures at historic Fort Hancock to commercial interests because the Park Service can't afford their maintenance, and the Presidio of San Francisco is run more like a business than a unit of the national park system.

So what are we to make of the news that Dinosaur National Monument is whittling its staff of three paleontologists down to just one?

"They're cutting out the heart of the paleo program," Margaret Imhof, a private contracting paleontologist in Vernal, Utah, tells the Salt Lake Tribune.

Superintendent Mary Risser, however, tells the newspaper that the monument's remaining paleontologist, Dan Chure, can accomplish the monument's mission by working with academic and museum researchers. Perhaps that's true. After all, academics were responsible for discovering the site that's cut in half by the Green River. The current cost-cutting just brings matters full circle.

But do we want units of the national park system run by groups -- whether they're for-profit or non-profit -- other than the National Park Service? And if that's OK, why should the units remain part of the system? In the case of Dinosaur, the state of Utah runs a first-class paleontological museum in nearby Vernal. Why not simply give the state the national monument? That'd save the cash-strapped Park Service some money.

Once upon a time, some held a dream of seeing Dinosaur become a full-fledged national park. Can that still be possible with its research effectively outsourced? More importantly, is the cost-cutting at Dinosaur emblematic of what's transpiring across the national park system? Should we be surprised by such cuts engineered by the Bush administration? Is this good government at work, or a garage sale?

Back in 2006 when I raised the question of whether a national park becomes less of a national park when pieces of it are handed over to commercial interests under the guise of leasing, a superintendent lamented the lack of fiscal resources to do his job.

"The problem is not Park Service neglect, in my experience," the superintendent told me. "It's the excruciating dilemma of not having the tools to protect the resources, no matter how much we want to do. If the choice is to allow the resources to degrade significantly or work with partners to arrest or reverse it, I don't know any superintendent, current or past, who wouldn't look very hard at the partnership option.

"I think the problem right now is that all the rhetoric and organizational and political incentives favor the partnerships, overshadowing the policy statements that tell us these are public resources and the public benefit should always come first."

Comments

I've been to Dinosaur only once, but the trip is still vivid in my memory. I live near D.C. and get to visit the best museums that the country has to offer any time I want to, but it is no comparison to actually being in Dinosaur and seeing the massive jumble of bones in the rock. More impressive, having truly knowledgable staff there to answer even the most routine questions from the tourists!! In my experience with the national parks, having visited now all but 4 in the United States, the staff will go above and beyond to make your trip educational. The volenteers, however, get tired with answering the same questions by the kids over and over and you simply do NOT get the same experience. I truly wonder if the people who decided that this cut would be a 'good' idea have ever spent a great deal of time in Dinosaur and have a honest understanding of the "mission" of the park. If the museum was the experience, then I'd have had the experience here in D.C. -but you can't get the true experience of Dinosaur from a musuem. Anyone who has ever been there knows this... once again, cuts are being made by people who do not have a clue what they are cutting. It makes me very frustrated. If I were in charge, I would require that before a park suffers a cut back, the people in charge would have to spend a minimum of 3 weeks living and working there.

In all likelihood, this is another example of cutting essential programs that is derived from the "core operations" process - the brainchild of Mike Snyder, the Regional Director in the Intermountain Region of the NPS, in which Dinosaur NM is located. Another recent example of this is the effort to consolidate the Santa Fe Support Office into the Old Santa Fe Trails Building, which many have worried could cause serious impairment to this National Landmark. There are other things like this "afoot" in the Region, obviously instigated by Snyder - about whom some have said, "He knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing!"

Bill Wade
Chair, Executive Council
Coalition of National Park Service Retirees

Mt. Rainier works with the US Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, WA. They don't need their own NPS volcanologist--USGS does a great job.

The USGS does a great job at Rainier, and the public gets to see what part of this process? Maybe a seismograph needle? The beauty of Dinosaur USED to be that people could see something in action in the field or in the lab. Since the visitor center shut down there have been few fossils to see and only a couple of days of excavation the public could actually see. At a time when services for the public are so stunted at this park, is is absurd to be eliminating the very people who are best suited to give both the public and researchers what they most need- an inspiring educational experience and important fossils. As for the benifits and efficiency of outsourcing this work, since 2002 when the NPS first tried to cut this program, there have been 6 years to prove it can be done. The results of outsourcing have been meager at best, and their work has been almost invisible to the public. At a time when other paleontology parks are thriving and growing, one has to wonder why Dinosaur is crashing and burning.

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What the heck is a "full-fledged national park.? You should know better. There is no difference in management by law or policy of a unit of the National Park System based on its nomenclature. When places like Cayuhoga and Congaree changed to national "parks" nothing changed but their names. YOu should be the voice of accuracy for parks, not a contributor to the silly nonsense that is perpetuated by the meaningless diversity of designations.

Ouch. Shoot the messenger why don't you?

The fact of the matter is that in the monument's past there have been efforts to see it renamed Dinosaur National Park, so that was an accurate statement. Would such a change have an overall impact on management of Dinosaur? Maybe, maybe not.

But you can be sure the surrounding communities would love to see the change in designation as it would bring in more tourists. That's exactly what's behind the move down at Cedar Breaks National Monument to have it renamed a "park."

Monument or Park, the key word here is "Dinosaur".

Of course, the monument has lovely rivers, wildlife, botany and cultural resources. Park management has recently been using these other resources as justification for reducing the paleo program (see www.ubstandard.com, article on 2/19/08). Clearly ALL resources need protection and interpretation. However, it isnt called Dinosaur National Monument for nothing! Paleo has been identified as its core mission as well as being part of the founding legislation.

What I want to know is:
-- Is the priority balancing a budget or keeping the park active and dynamic?
-- What sort of specific requests (and advocating for the need of a full paleo program) have been done by park management? That is, did anyone TRY to keep the program alive or merely favor balancing numbers?
-- How are these decisions being made without a FY2008 budget in place while there is talk of a $200 million increase?
-- Why have internal suggestions of alternative interpretive programs (since the quarry building closure) such as screenwashing demonstrations and re-opening of "outsourced" quarries not occurred? Did someone want to claim that "paleontology has lost its appeal"?
-- Does park management fully understand the pitfalls of relying on outsourcing to continue the program?
-- Do they know the value of the work currently being done by all staff?

First, re the exchange between Arizonaman and Kurt about "full-fledged national park" status, the nomenclature is indeed meaningless as far as policy, but it still has an effect. "National Park" has more cachet with the public and often translates to more visitation, which will sooner or later influence management.

Alas, at Dinosaur we can not "be sure the surrounding communities would love to see the change in designation." The name change proposal back in the '80s withered in the face of local opposition, because the old guard of the Uinta Basin is dedicated to extractive industries. Their rallying cry was that park status would require Class I air quality designation and prevent further energy development (and God forbid that we should breathe clean air instead of building a multitude of coal-burning power plants with which to turn the entire Basin substrate into a giant oven for extraction of shale oil... but I digress).

In any case, energy still ties into the present Dinosaur debacle. Had the quarry been closed 10 or 15 years ago, in a downturn of the boom-bust cycle, I think there would have been a lot more uproar about closing the Basin's number one visitor destination. Now, local motels, restaurants, campgrounds and just about everything else are packed with oil/gas employees. The impact of the quarry closure on tourism has hardly been noticed—except, one suspects, by NPS managers who are thinking, "Now's our chance to gut the paleo program, when nobody's looking."

Allow me to shine some light on a different aspect of the "Gutting of the paleo program" at DNM. I have recently served as an SCA (Student Conservation Association) Intern at Dinosaur for 3 months during the summer of 2007. I filled a Paleontology research assistant internship position under the direct supervision of Scott Madsen (one of the individuals who is being "Axed") a 20+ yr. employee of the NPS. Scott's official title is the "Park Geologist" but more importantly he is the paleo lab manager, chief fossil preparator (who's talents are recognized nation wide), and field (excavation) coordinator at DNM and has been the absolute heartbeat of the paleo program for the last 20 years. As an undergraduate student I had the AMAZING opportunity to work with Scott Madsen as well as many other very well known paleontologists during my time at DNM. I came to DNM as a senior college student very interested in vertebrate paleontology but unsure weather I wanted to pursue furthering my education and or career in paleo. Within the first week that I worked with Scott, all my questions or doubts were answered and I knew whole heartedly that vert paleo was my calling. As an intern I learned more from Scott Madsen in 3 months than any semester throughout my college career. He is truly one of the most knowledgeable paleontologists that I have ever come in contact with. As a mentor, I have never had a better one and he taught me all I needed to know to get started in the field of vert paleo and more specifically skills as a fossil preparator. During the summer of 2006 (June), as the President of the Buffalo State College Geology Club, I lead a trip to points of geologic and paleontological interest throughout portions of Colorado and Utah. As our final stop we visited Dinosaur National Monument. It turned out that we made it there one month before the closure of the Quarry Visitor Center (Bone wall) and I will tell you that we were all completely amazed at the amazing display of fossils. For those of you who don’t know, DNM is THE ONLY site of its kind (and stature) in the WORLD! Yes that’s rite folks the ONLY place like it in the WORLD! Scientifically speaking it is a "meca" for paleontology and the work that has been done there has only scratched the surface! There are so many other discoveries to be made and sites to be worked at DNM and this should absolutely be made a priority by park management but "UNFORTUNETELY" it HAS NOT been included in DNM's "Core Operations" plan and science is suffering. During my first week at the park it was blatantly clear that the management at DNM has a "CANT DO" attitude as they repeatedly squashed any idea or plan that would give the public (visitors) what they wanted to see which are paleontologists in the field, making discoveries, before their very eyes! Mr. Madsen had initiated a plan to excavate a known micro site at the Rainbow Park are of DNM as well as another known locality just below the quarry visitor center. He had a plan in place as well as the resources to accomplish such a plan and Marry Risser (Park Superintendent), Wayne Prokopatz (Resource Manager) as well as Dan Chure (Park Paleontologist) denied permission and squashed the plan with NO formal reasoning as to why it couldn’t be done! Now I ask you (the public), what do you want to see when visiting Dinosaur National Monument? I propose the answer to be - dinosaur bones and paleontologists at work? Well, the quarry visitor center which contains the fossil wall is closed for good reason as the building is moving and self destructing at a rapid pace. So this leads to my next question - If you can’t see the fossil wall what do you want to see instead? I propose the answer to be - alternate exhibits and paleontologists at work in the field making new discoveries? Am I on to something here? Mr. Madsen's plans would have given thousands of visitors a first hand experience of witnessing fossil excavations in progress as well as operations and techniques associated with such work. Instead the visitors (which numbers continued to drop throughout the summer) got to take a 10 minute tour of a make shift visitors center containing very few (and poorly done in my opinion) exhibits, listen to a ranger talk about what they could have seen, take a guided walk on the fossil discovery trail (where they get to see mostly scraps of badly weathered bone) and then get a 30 minute bus tour of the park that they could have done in their own car. I will add that amazingly the Chief of Interpretation did allow us to give a live fossil preparation demonstration at the make shift visitor center. This demonstration was a HUGE success and we averaged 6-10 visitors watching at any given time with some crowds much greater in size. People were amazed, curious, very inquisitive and appreciative of the chance to see paleontologist at work. So now I ask, what are the priorities at DNM (an amazing paleontological and geological resource)? It appears to me that the priorities are everything but paleontology. So why is paleontology not a priority at a paleontology based park? What is the future of one of our National Treasures? How can you have a paleontology program with just one (hands-off) paleontologist who works out of his home and is rarely seen at the park at all? How can you have a collection of fossils with no collections manager (yes that’s rite Marry Risser is also eliminating the curator position held by Ann Elder who is another 20+ yr. veteran of the NPS)? Why are collections currently being stored in car garages (employee housing) and an old beat up semi trailer? Is this proper care for our National Treasures? I think not! How can their be a functioning paleo program without a fossil preparator/lab manager/field coordinator? The answer is that their flat out CAN NOT be a functioning paleo program with only one person at the helm. Dan Chure CAN NOT replace the need for the 50+ years of combined experience and knowledge that Scott Madsen and Ann Elder bring to their respective positions. Hiding behind a smoke screen of "outsourcing" and "partnerships" is not the answer! For those of us in the paleo field, we all know how expensive "outsourcing" can be. Paleo consultants come at a price of over $30.00 an hour in most cases. As far as partnerships go their has been NO formal partnership with ANY outside organizations other than BYU who has FAILED miserably at producing any viable work at DNM to date. As a student in science I was and still am very DISTURBED by this negative attitude and absolute failure to provide both the public and researchers access to this amazing resource. Since 2002 (the last attempt by upper management to decimate the paleo program) Scott Madsen has successfully supervised and mentored 12 interns from both the SCA and GeoCorps. At least 90% of these interns have gone on to further their education and or career in vertebrate paleontology. Who will take on these valuable interns when Mr. Madsen's position is cut? The answer is NOT the park paleontologist because since 2002 he has had only 1 intern! Let it be known that in the 13 weeks that I worked at DNM as a paleontologist research assistant, not ONCE did the park paleontologist meet with me or give me ANY formal training or information whatsoever! In fact, I only met him briefly in passing and it was one of only 3 times that I physically saw him out at the park during those 13 weeks! Marry Risser says that this is the man who will oversee the program? I feel that this is even a larger problem looming over the program! It's high time that other students, researcher's, community member's, politicians and the general public (tax payers) continue to get involved and speak out against this MOST IGNORANT decision!

This discussion on the paleontology program at Dinosaur National Monument has degraded into some kind of personal vendetta. This isn’t discussion - it’s pure vitriol. This kind of post reeks of a private agenda and should call into question his entire argument. The moderator of this site should weed this sort of stuff out.

First, this seems like such a political decision. I wonder if those in charge at DNM are only 'in it' for themselves... Hmmmm.....

Second, I need to admit it, I found Tom's rant refreshing. I myself am a graduate student in natural resources, and while my first love(s) involve the mountains of Colorado and Alaska, I am thrilled to see a young person so passionate about his field, our resources and our parks. Even if the example given involves only one park.

I am frequently dismayed by both the disconnect evident between many in my generation and our parks and wild lands. I deal with these issues too frequently in my own research.
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"To defrauded town toilers, parks in magazine articles are like pictures of bread to the hungry. I can write only hints to incite good wanderers to come to the feast.... A day in the mountains is worth a mountain of books." -- John Muir

I don't see anything "refreshing" about personal invective. Tom obviously has an axe to grind.

JTR has a point. Sounds like Tom is airing a personal grudge.

First off I would like to correct a couple names that were misspelled in my earlier post – Mary Risser (Park Superintendent) and Ann Elder (Fossil Curator and Collections Manager) are now spelled correctly and my apologies for the miss-spelling. Secondly I would like to correct one error in a number that I had reported (as I am all about the facts and only the facts). Scott Madsen has secured funding for and directly supervised 11 (not the 12 reported earlier) paid (funded) interns through the SCA and GeoCorps since 2002. Mite I add that he has 2 more interns coming on board this spring (if they don’t gut the program before that time) to increase his total to 13 interns in 6 years. I would also like to add that Scott has had at least 5 volunteers work under him in the paleo program over the years and one of which (Dale Gray) has worked at DNM (within the paleo program) for 23 years and accumulated 10,750 hours of volunteer work time! Now onto the several comments about me having some sort of personal grudge or axe to grind? I had figured that there would be some comments that tried to discredit my factual information because unfortunately that is how our society works. However, that is part of the beauty of living in this great Nation of ours, in that we have something called freedom of speech and can all voice our opinions. That being said, I maintain the importance of people sticking to the stated facts, researching the issue, getting involved and posting educated and factual information. For those of you who have identified that clearly there is a very large problem at DNM and have chosen to get involved, I say great, stay involved and keep posting your educated remarks and information. For those of you that choose otherwise (that is to minimize or distort other people’s factual information or experience), I say you have the right to voice your opinion but maybe it would be better suited in another venue. Unproductive comments or accusations are part of the problem not the solution! For those of us who are taking a more educated and proactive look into this looming problem, it is very important to focus on and distribute facts and personal experiences. Case in point – the postings by PaleoPeace, Chance Finegan, Linda West, Dale Gray (23 yr. volunteer at DNM) and myself which are loaded with FACTUAL information and viable questions! Thanks to you Jen Stegmann for backing me as a fellow graduate student. Your remarks were appreciated and clearly came from an educated and intellectual standpoint. Also I would like to thank the editor for obviously noting the factual information and posting my important viewpoint. Please do your homework and stay involved! Thanks!

Hey hats off to Tom for a very informative and well written comment! As someone who works in the field of paleontology, this is a very personal situation and we as scientist should all feel this way about such an awesome resource like Dinosaur. It sounds to me like Tom is speaking from experience and has facts to back him up! I am very concerned about the points that he has brought to the forefront, especially the very apparent shortcomings of park management and paleontology program manager. Consider me to be "On Board" and I will be writing the director as well as the Secretary of the Interior. Thanks for the great comment Tom!

Just what I thought - a small group of friends with a personal agenda. And we’re supposed to believe that a summer intern has all the facts about what the scientists and management do and all the decisions they make and how they spend their time. It seems that a summer SCA intern is pretty much the lowest level employee in a park and certainly not privy to ALL THE FACTS. Sounds like you just don’t understand what work is going on around you.

I have to say that I am with Tom, Jen, DinoMan and the rest of the concerned people who have posted excellent comments and credible information on this site. As a geology student, I to have a passion for paleontology and hope to pursue a graduate education in vertebrate paleontology. I completely agree with Jen in that I also find it “refreshing” to hear such passion and dedication to a cause displayed by a fellow student! As students in science, we are the future of paleontology and geology, it is us that will carry the torch and unfortunately have to correct the mistakes made by the “Old Guard” (NPS management). All throughout my childhood we traveled every summer to many of our countries National Parks and I have fond memories of Dinosaur National Monument (before the closure of course) and the lasting affect it had on me. There are some excellent questions and concerns that have been voiced on this site and I think its high-time that the NPS starts giving us some legitimate answers! It seems to me that Tom has raised some legitimate concerns through his experience at Dinosaur and I will join the cause as well. I will most definitely write numerous letters to the upper management of the NPS as well as politicians (it’s an election year folks!) and outside organizations. This situation also hits a nerve with me because I have recently applied for 2 internships at Dinosaur National Monument this summer (hopefully they haven’t gutted the program by then) and I was hoping to have a valuable experience if I am selected. Hopefully I can help make a difference in this situation. Let me finish by saying that I think it’s disgusting that certain people (refer to above) make it their job to discredit and bash other people’s knowledge and experience. What a complete waste of time and blog space on this page! It sounds to me like JTR might very well be closely connected to this situation and actually part of the growing problem? Before you start minimizing the importance of such interns and an organization such as SCA you might want to do some research into that program and I think you will find the importance behind it. Furthermore, it sounds like interns and volunteers such as Tom (a lowly form of life according to the ignorance of JTR) have done MUCH of the work at Dinosaur? Hmmm let’s ponder that…… I think we (the educated and concerned public) can see rite through the fact-less comments posted by such people. I will spread the word throughout school and my community and keep closely connected to this issue.

It's certainly good to see such concern for Dinosaur National Monument. I have indeed been doing some follow-up to the previous articles on this matter. As they say, there are two sides to every story. Sometimes three or four. With that said, rather than bashing folks for their views, if you can, hold off on further comments until I can provide you with an update. It should be posted sometime tomorrow, and I think you'll find its contents interesting.

This comment is not to cause any more flares. I hope Kurt will forgive my intrusion; I'm not sure how else to do this. Tom and Paleogirl1, look through my profile on here and find my blog/website link - then find my contact info and send me a note.

Jen

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"To defrauded town toilers, parks in magazine articles are like pictures of bread to the hungry. I can write only hints to incite good wanderers to come to the feast.... A day in the mountains is worth a mountain of books." -- John Muir

Whats your beef JTR? Do you have sort of inside information to offer? Have you been to the park? Do you know what is going on here? Do you work there? Have you worked there? Unless you have, I do not see how you can be accusing Tom of stating his mind (this is America after all). Paleo is a pretty small work, there are always personal connections, maybe you know that. So, whats your beef? what are your opinions? IF you do not have anything constructive today button your lip!

First of all, I would like to say that it warms my heart to see such passion and fire in these blogs and posts regarding the atrocious problem at Dinosaur National Monument. In matters such as this, these educated comments and discussions are exactly what we need in addition to the letters and messages to those politicians. Even though some of these politicians may THINK they have the best intentions for Dino at heart (for some of them I wouldn't be so sure...), the public has a completely different view and in the end, it's the public's opinion that matters most for they are the ones who will suffer the most. We, the public, as a whole, CANNOT let such a catastrophe happen. Dinosaur National Monument, as has been previously pointed out, is the ONLY SITE OF IT'S KIND IN THE WORLD! Therefore, not only is the American public going to suffer if this decision goes through, but so will the people of the world. Let's face it, Americans are not the only ones visiting parks, everyone knows that parks with such amazing features are INTERNATIONAL attractions not just NATIONAL ones. So how can we just stand idly by and let administrators and bureaucrats make decisions for everyone? It's just not right.
Secondly, I too am a student of paleontology. I'm a graduating senior wishing to further my education through graduate school and hope to someday have a Ph.D. in Vertebrate Paleontology. I've applied to the internship at DINO through both Geocorps and SCA, and I really hope this decision does not go through. The internship that's being offered will be an amazing experience, and if both Scott and Ann are cut, the experience will change greatly. The program would be supervised by Dan Chure, who, honestly, has a bad reputation among those who have worked there in the past as a volunteer or intern as well as with those applying. I will not pass judgement on Mr. Chure as a person, but boy oh boy, as a supervisor.....let's just say his performance leaves great room for improvement. (I want to make a point that this is in no way supposed to be a personal attack on anyone, I am just stating my personal opinion and what I've heard.) If things change and the position of supervisor for these internships changes hands, what will become of the once reknowned internship/volunteer experience at DINO? Right now, at this very moment, there is a substantial amount of people on pins and needles waiting to hear back about this internship, whether any of us have a chance or not at getting it, whether it's truly going to be what we signed up for. I for one want to make damn sure that this internship continues to be the amazing experience I've been told about.
The last thing I want to say is this: it's great that all of us are so heated about this and really taking this problem to heart, it's even better that some of us are working individually to fight this. I would like to propose something though: I ask those of you who feel strongly enough about this issue towards keeping the paleo program at DINO, are you willing to band together, form some sort of coalition against this mishap? Are you willing to go out there, get signatures for petitions and start getting the national public involved in this matter? I think this should be taken to the national public because the more voices we can get on our side, the better!! If you are interested in this, please post back a response!! I truly believe that if we work hard enough, we can make them hear us and make them understand exactly what we mean!! You CANNOT take the PALEONTOLOGY out of a PALEONTOLOGY PROGRAM.....that's like taking the ice cream out of an ice cream parlor, it just doesn't work that way people!! we cannot let this injustice pass!!