A View From The Overlook: Fossil Butte National Monument

The windswept prairie surrounding Fossil Butte National Monument contains untold numbers of fossil treasures. NPS photo.

The two-hour-or-so drive from Salt Lake City, to Kemmerer, Wyoming, a gateway to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, is educational for European and Eastern U.S. visitors.

After flying into Salt Lake City, touring Temple Square and hearing the proverbial pin drop in the Mormon Tabernacle, and floating the Great Salt Lake, our prototypical English or German or New York visitor may choose the path to Kemmerer.

Now, most Western American cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, Los Angeles and so on, provide a gradual introduction to the wide open spaces of the American West. That is, one drives past miles and miles of dreary strip mall developments, suburbia, farms, and freeway exits to small towns, before one reaches the sanctuary of the wide open spaces, usually federal public lands.

This is not so in the case of Salt Lake City, at least if you take the road to Kemmerer. After passing Salt Lake City’s modest posse of skyscrapers, and heading up Interstate 80 through Parley's Canyon, our Europeans will abruptly find themselves in the Big Empty. There will be no suburbs, or farms, or towns, or people.

The very good road takes you past modest samples of the red-rock sandstone outcroppings that have made Utah a world destination. Later on there is rolling sage brush country, the omnipresent big blue sky and nothing.

The highway signs announce an exit, and sometimes even provide a name of the presumably human settlement, but the signs also remind that there are NO SERVICES. There are apparently no people before or after the horizon line.

The European visitor is nervously pleased that his rental car has a full tank of gas. It begins to feel like an eerie trip into The Twilight Zone. You half expect the Strange Hitchhiker to appear on the side of the road, the one your wife (and the Ominous Music) suggests you NOT pick up.

I asked a Wyoming native if the two-hour-or-so drive from Kemmerer to Salt Lake City sans people might feel a bit spooky in the 21st century? He laughed and said, "You should try it in February with the black ice and ground blizzards; that’ll keep your knuckles white for a few hours!"

Rodney Dangerfield of Wyoming

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Fossil Butte is famous for is finely detailed specimens. NPS photo.

At the end of the two-or-so hours, you arrive in Kemmerer.

Now, Kemmerer is the Rodney Dangerfield of Wyoming small towns; it gets no respect from the rest of Wyoming.

On more than one occasion, citizens of Wyoming asked us incredulously, “You mean you deliberately went to Kemmerer as a destination and STAYED there? Why on earth for?"

Actually, Kemmerer is a pretty interesting little town. It has three main attractions and several minor ones, plus some 2,000+ friendly folk (or at least the ornery ones are not on public display). It is a coal town, named for Mahlon S. Kemmerer, an Eastern coal magnate. The underground coal mines have morphed into the largest open pit coal mine in North America, 5,000 feet long, 4,000 feet wide and 1,000 feet deep, producing upwards of 4 million tons a year.

Kemmerer is also the home of the “Mother Store,” the very first JC Penny store that opened in 1902 and is still going strong (bought a T-shirt there!). Down the block is the neat little cottage where James Cash Penny and his family lived. It has been lovingly restored by the JC Penny Foundation and is worth a visit.

The pride of Kemmerer is Fossil Butte National Monument, one of about 400 sites scattered around the country administered by the National Park Service. These sites commemorate the history and natural history of America and are of interest to people throughout the world.

Some of these sites, like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Yosemite, are truly awesome, but most NPS units do not roar, tower, thunder, erupt, awe, or amaze: They simply instruct, often in only one subject and they generally do a good job of it. Fossil Butte National Monument is one such unit.

National Park Paradox

Now, many, if not most, of these 400 national park units are located in the most conservative and reactionary regions of the United States. This leads to what might be termed The National Park Paradox. That is, a Neanderthal congressman from a primitive district will take time out from his/her normal role of denying food stamps to the poor to campaign for the establishment of one of these NPS dens of Socialism in his/her district.

Why?

Because his constituents realize that a modest, but steady and inexhaustible flow, of tourist dollars beats a rapacious and destructive extractive industry in the long haul.

One must think ahead. One can, after all, graze far more tourists on the arid lands of the sagebrush steppe country of southwestern Wyoming than cattle. Unlike the cows, the tourists are managed by the NPS and you do the milking. A brilliant solution to the boom-and-bust cycle of the small-town West!

The city fathers of Kemmerer cast about for possibilities: The area around Fossil Butte was known for, well, what else? The petrified remains of previous life were everywhere; a Kemmerer boosters club was formed.

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A primitive bat, this creature likely crawled, rather than flew, after its meals, according to the NPS. NPS photo.

The area around Fossil Butte was then, and remains today, a treasure trove of fossils from the Eocene Epoch of the Cenozoic Era. The fossil deposit was mainly fish. (In fact, Fossil Butte National Monument has been called “The Stone Aquarium”)

Only fish? Well no, there are some small mammals, bats and such. (For the Fred Flintstone Thunder Lizard stuff you are going to have to go to Dinosaur National Monument down in Utah.) But fish are the main course at Fossil Butte National Monument.

Ah, but what fish fossils! No vague imprints here! All the bones, fins, and even scales are exquisitely preserved. Eminent scientists offered their opinion: “Fossil Basin is a rare locality in paleontology: a “lagerstatten.” This German word, meaning “mother lode,” describes sites that are so well-preserved that entire paleoecosystems can be examined from the variety of fossils found there. It has been said that Fossil Basin contains the world’s best paleontological record of aquatic communities since the Age of Dinosaurs to the Ice Age.

The scientists were on board, now for the politicians.

U.S. Senator Gale McGee (D-WY) stated: “Mr. Chairman, it is difficult to describe in words the beauty of this area and the geological formations which have evolved from a metamorphosis of the Earth’s surface over a period of 50 million years. No other site in America has a more abundant supply of fossil fish deposits. As only one example of fossilized marine life, Eocene fish fossils at Fossil Butte are believed to be the best and most significant in the United States and probably the world. It is truly a paleontologist’s paradise and has attracted the attention of the academic community and laymen alike for many years.”

(Senator McGee was himself a living fossil, a liberal Wyoming Democrat, soon to become extinc. He was the last Democrat senator from Wyoming, possibly for the rest of the Cenozoic Era.)

Wyoming’s conservative Senator Cliff Hansen (R-WY) joined Sen. McGee in pushing for the establishment of a monument and, in 1972, 8,000-acre Fossil Butte National Monument was signed into reality by President Richard Nixon (The answer to the environmental trivia question: “Aside from Theodore Roosevelt, who was the greatest Republican Environmentalist President?”)

Fossil Butte National Monument is located about ten miles outside of Kemmerer. Its biome is called “Sagebrush steppe,” which sounds a bit depressing (Senator McGee patriotically got a little carried away when he found that “words could not describe” the beauty of the place.)

NPS archeologists found that even the redoubtable Shoshone, who wrote the manual on subsistence survival in desert environments, found they had better employment opportunities elsewhere, and visited the Fossil Butte area only periodically.

There are, however, those who love the Sagebrush Steppe, mainly ranchers who run cattle and sheep on U.S. Bureau of Land Management leases, who bargained the size of the Monument down from 13,000 acres to an acceptable 8,000 acres.

One of the most interesting interpretive features of the park is an immense geological timeline that starts about three-quarters-of-a-mile from the visitor center with opportunities to stop off and visit various eras and epochs and see who was evolving and who was not. Your correspondent was intrigued: If they tried something like this at Grand Canyon National Park, the staff would be lynched by Bible-thumping fundamentalists, dragging barrels of molten tar and sacks of feathers.

Well, maybe not quite that bad, but there would certainly have been picket lines and solemn letters to congressmen decrying the spending of taxpayer money furthering the work of the Antichrist.

How had Fossil Butte managed to pull it off?

“When in doubt, ask a ranger!” So, I asked park Superintendent Nancy Skinner.

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This early version of softshell turtle measured more than 5 feet across. Today's version measures about 20 inches across. NPS photo.

She explained the short history of the trail and the overall lack of comments spurred by it.

"We do get some comments from Creationists or Bible fundamentalists, however, the time line exhibit has been in place for more than three years and comments have not increased since installation," said Superintendent Skinner. "Our entire exhibit area and focus on fossils elicits a certain amount of this from the public (though) it seems rather small. We don't attempt to convince anyone of anything. We simply present a scientific body of knowledge."

Good point, Ms. Skinner!

The late Senator Daniel Moynihan once observed, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own set of facts.” (Which, one supposes, is what makes wars of religion so intense!)

That didn’t quite answer my question until I realized that the Monument and the NPS were theologically lucky! You see, the dominant religion in the area and indeed the region is the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, and the Mormon Church has taken no official position on evolution. According to the Church, you can run through all the dinosaurs, sabre toothed tigers and mastodons you want for an ancestor as long as you eventually come up with Adam and Eve. They’re cool with that.

Only One Problem

The work of the Monument centers around the very well done and quietly impressive visitor center. True, there is a short nature trail (The Monument is the only area in the Sagebrush Steppe biome where grazing is forbidden and scientists and others can observe plant recovery) and there is an even shorter trail up to the discovery quarry, but more than other parks, the visitor center gets the job done.

There are fossils (oodles of them) information on how they got that way and how they relate to modern fish. You also, if you arrive at the right time, will get a chance to see a fossil fish emerge from its millions of years old grave as a technician blasts away the surrounding matrix with a jackhammer the size of a ball point pen. The staff is enthusiastic and obviously happy in their work of introducing you to dead fish.

Any problems?

Unfortunately yes, and they are of monumental nature. It seems that science marches on, and not always in the direction we would prefer.

“Continuing research indicates that Fossil Ridge, two miles OUTSIDE the national monument boundary is actually the ancient lake’s center….. In essence, Fossil Butte National Monument does not protect the most critical paleontological resources of ancient Fossil Lake as Congressional sponsors, scientists, and members of the Community originally intended," notes the Fossil Butte Long Range Interpretive Plan 2006.

So we put the right idea in the wrong place. It happens, nobody’s fault. Little Jewel Cave National Monument wriggled out from under its boundaries to become Big Jewel Cave.

In addition, there is an even more existential threat to Fossil Butte: There is, “A private industry proposal to construct 100-plus wind turbines on Fossil Ridge. The 26-foot diameter concrete pads will penetrate 30 feet into the ground, threatening the best of the best of the fossil resources. The 300-foot-high towers and blades will pockmark the monuments viewshed.” (Yes, I know it sounds like an old time melodrama: The villains have done everything but tie the superintendent to the railroad tracks!)


So what can be done? It seems that Fossil Ridge and the eastern margin of Fossil Lake is a mixture of private, state, and BLM lands complicated by Wyoming politics. It appears that the monument legislation will not allow Wyoming state lands to be acquired and that the monument must not be more than 8,200 acres. As a possible solution, some sort of land swap could be organized, possibly through the mediation of THE TRUST FOR PUBLIC LAND.

It’s worth a try!

Comments

What a nice trip report PJ. I hope Kurt can get you and Thunderbear a special grant so that you can, at your leisure, travel to each and every national park unit and focus your creative writing skills on producing a trip report for each encounter. Here's hoping Fossil Butte gets enlarged to encompass all of the region of the ancient fossil lake that should be under protection. It would be interesting if a short video could be posted to give your viewers a hint about "a landscape so beautiful it cannot be described by words."

Thanks for the story. I didn't realize the issue around Fossil Ridge, well done.

Yes, thanks for the enlightenment, PJ. I've always wanted to visit Fossil Butte, and now I really want to!

While some might think PJ's writing is parody, it's not. This piece captures perfectly the insane schizoid mentality of many of our western legislators.

But Fossil Butte is definitely a place well worth visiting.