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Dinosaur National Monument: Paleo's Not The Only Responsibility
Floating the Green or Yampa rivers through Dinosaur National Monument shows a side of this national park unit that is not reflected in its name. Indeed, fossils from the age of dinosaurs are the last thing that crosses your mind. Rather, you're caught up in navigating patches of white water, admiring towering cliffs, and gazing at bighorn sheep that have descended to the water's edge to browse.
Thumb through a copy of Dinosaur, Four Seasons on the Green and Yampa Rivers
and you'll read about the currents of water, not prehistory, that wend through this rugged landscape and learn something about the West's water wars.
And yet...the monument is named for dinosaurs, for the great treasures of bone turned to rock that are locked away in the sandstone reefs that ripple the landscape.
Nestled in the northeastern corner of Utah is one of the most famous and important windows onto the 150 million-year-old world of the dinosaurs -- Dinosaur National Monument.
So wrote Daniel Chure, the park's resident paleontologist, some years ago in a page-and-a-half monograph explaining the monument's significance. Although much still remains to be done and many discoveries are yet to be made, Dinosaur National Monument is an important stop for both paleontologists and the general public who want to learn more about dinosaurs and the world they lived in.
Any child, or adult, who has been mesmerized by a polished Utahraptor's claw, a toothy T-Rex grin, or the Jurassic Park franchise no doubt would leap at the chance to stand before the monument's famous cliffside with its array of more than 1,600 dinosaur fossils, including the smiling skull of a Camarasaurus.
And so it's not surprising that the announcement by the monument's superintendent that she planned to reduce the staff in the paleontology department was met with both disbelief and anger. In the wake of the shuttering of the visitor center at the bone quarry back in July 2006 because of stability and structural problems, Superintendent Mary Risser's recent announcement that a "core operations analysis" indicated the monument's paleontology division could be better managed with fewer staff positions seemed akin to a death knell for the monument's paleontological mission.
Not everyone believes that is the case at hand.
“This clearly is reflective of sort of the ongoing funding challenges the parks face," David Nimkin, the Southwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, told me the other day. "It is clear, too, that Dinosaur is more than just paleontology, and that they have to spread their resources broadly to serve a lot of the different hats that they wear.
"... Certainly, it's Dinosaur National Monument," he continued, "but the elements that relate to river management and relate to all of the wildlife species at the park, the threatened and endangered species that they work with, all reinforce that this is a substantial and complex ecosystem.”
Initially these comments struck me a bit odd, that the NPCA of all groups would support a perceived reduction in what many view as the core mission of Dinosaur. What Mr. Nimkin had to say next was even more startling.
“I really am of the opinion that they’re doing a fine job in the face of real significant financial constraints," he said. "I’ve gotten messages saying she (Superintendent Risser) ought to be fired, change the leadership there. On the contrary, I really want to complement their staff for really finding ways to serve all the needs they have, and that’s not always a popular thing.”
But....read that paragraph over again, and take note of what Mr. Nimkin said. Essentially, it's this: When backed into a fiscal corner, due to the relatively meager funding given the National Park Service to disburse across its 391 units, Superintendent Risser made some tough choices, choices that should allow the paleontology division to continue to move forward.
Will it operate like the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana? Hardly. But then, has it ever?
“That’s not taking the Park Service off the hook or taking the government off the hook for supporting core operations, which are so necessary,” the NPCA official said a bit later in our conversation. “I’m concerned, but it’s not the fault of the superintendent. It is the fault of a dearth of funds that have eroded over the years, that has put the management of the park in a position to make these very, very difficult choices.
"All I’m saying is that, in the scope of this, the confluence of the visitor center closure and building a curatorial center in Vernal and the limitations with their personnel, I guess I believe she has made a necessary but difficult choice,” Mr. Nimkin told me.
My next call was to paleontologist Chure. If anyone would be upset with the funding decision, surely it would be the long-tenured scientist, for it's his staff that's being reduced. But, like Mr. Nimkin, the paleontologist didn't see the end of the world. To the contrary. He saw new flexibility in his program, as the savings from the reduced personnel costs can be applied not to just one area, but to a variety of areas where research is needed at the monument.
"The thing you need to understand is the paleo operation is within the Division of Research and Resource Management. There are other operations there that involve wildlife, cultural resources, botany, threatened and endangered species," said Mr. Chure. "Over the last number of years, each of those operations has gone to a structure where there were a couple of employees each working on a few things to a single program manager that oversees a large number of projects involving outside researchers."
"So the reduction in staffing in those operations was used, that money was used either as seed money or matching funds or contracting or whatever," he continued. "The work in each of those operations has really expanded a lot. And really, the paleo operation is the last of the operations in the division to undergo that transformation to that other kind of structure. ... Some places make it look like the paleo operation has been targeted. That's not true. It's just that the paleo operation is now going to be brought into a structure that conforms with the way all the other resource management programs in the park have been operating for some time.
"The way I see this, it gives us a lot more flexibility for dealing with the various kinds of resource management issues and problems that we have," the paleontologist went on. "So for example, for one project you might need someone who's a geochemist and someone who does radiometric dating and a stratigrapher for a certain problem. And another resource management issue might require a sedimentologist and a fossil pollen specialist.
"And we simply don't have those kinds of staffing abilities in the park. For any operation. And so by going to this new structure we'll have the flexibility with the funds to contract for many different specialists for particular projects that we need to have their work for, and just for the duration of those projects. So it allows us to utilize a much wider range of specialists to deal with our resource management issues than just a few people on staff."
It could be argued, of course, that the bottom line is that the Park Service is outsourcing its work.
"I don't think it's a fair analogy," countered Mr. Chure. "It's expanding the research that is being done here, because a lot of those issues that we need to deal with are not getting addressed because we do not have the ability to do it with existing staff."
As for how the visitor experience might be impacted due to this change in working relationships, he doesn't think there will be a drop-off at all.
"A problem we have right now is working to get the visitor center reopened," Mr. Chure pointed out. "Getting the building reopened is a process that goes on independent of this issue of positions. Ultimately, when that building is open and we have new exhibits, that will be the major visitor-paleo experience that they will have. In the interim we're doing various kinds of things, like hikes to fossil sites, we're doing special kinds of programs that have fossils."
Actually, he said, under the new working arrangement there could be more opportunities for visitors to watch paleontologists at work. "Being able to lead them to where excavations are going on, or having visiting researchers maybe give some kind of talk to the public while they're in, and expose visitors to a much wider range of the paleontological world than they would get just normally."
Intern programs and volunteer opportunities also will continue, said Mr. Chure.
Is this a perfect solution?
Probably not in the eyes of those who believe the Park Service has a responsibility to conduct a robust, in-house science mission. But when it comes to today's fiscal realities, this just might be the best the agency can do.