Artist Julius Costonyi’s rendition of a dinosaur hunt. Adult and juvenile Utahraptors attack an iguanodon trapped in quicksand. [Photo: Utah Geological Survey]

The area north of Moab known as Dalton Wells will in the near future be known under its newly approved designation: Utahraptor State Park. House Bill 257, sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason (R-District 45), was passed by the state legislature in early March and is expected to soon be signed by Governor Spencer Cox, and establishes both Utahraptor State Park and a new park in Morgan County called Lost Creek, with a combined price tag of $36.5 million.

Local officials have been concerned about overuse damaging the undeveloped area in recent years; the new state park will protect the rich paleontological, cultural, natural and recreation resources in the area.

SUB: A precious resource

“I have been working on trying to find a way to protect this area for five years now,” Grand County Commission Chair Mary McGann told the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee at their hearing on HB 257.

The area is valuable as the historic site of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp that was later used as a Japanese Isolation Center during WWII. It is also home to many miles of trails, including both the Sovereign Trail system established by local nonprofit Ride with Respect and the Fallen Peace Officer Trail.

As the park’s name suggests, it is a unique and valuable paleontological site. The first Utahraptor fossils were found there, and that animal is now the official state dinosaur. As Eliason reminded members of the legislature, the Utahraptor is widely familiar as the skeleton on the cover of the popular movie “Jurassic Park.”

State Paleontologist Jim Kirkland also spoke at the committee hearing to elaborate on the fossil resources found in the Dalton Wells Quarry.

“This is a totally unique site. It’s one of the oldest Cretacious sites in all of North America—in fact, all the oldest sites of Cretaceous North America are in Grand County,” he said, adding that the Dalton Wells site is larger than Dinosaur National Monument near Vernal, Utah.

“It’s truly remarkable,” Kirkland said. “We now consider these Grand County raptors the oldest raptor skeletons anywhere on the planet.” He expects that researchers from around the world will want to visit the site.

At the same time that officials recognized these values, they saw that more and more campers and recreational visitors were using the area and causing damage: Some visitors were illegally collecting valuable fossils. Campers were crushing vegetation and creating new roads to make new camping spots. Litter and trash were scattered around the area, including toilet paper and human waste.

“It’s not only ugly, it’s also unhealthy,” McGann told the committee.

Eliason introduced the bill during last year’s general session with a price tag of $10 million. While legislators supported the idea of the new park, they weren’t ready at that time to approve the funding. Since that time, Eliason said the Division of Parks and Recreation has had time to survey the area and produce a more accurate estimate of the cost of creating the infrastructure needed to do the park justice. About $29.5 million of the approved bill’s cost is allocated to Utahraptor State Park; the remaining $7 million is slated for Lost Creek State Park, a reservoir in the north of the state.

Discussion at the legislature

Local support was a significant point in Eliason’s arguments for his bill.

“We all don’t like national monuments being imposed on us here in Utah unilaterally,” Eliason said to the senate committee. “So in that same spirit, the past two years I’ve worked with the Grand County Council, and they have unanimously passed a resolution supporting the effort to create a state park.” The commission (then a council) unanimously approved a letter in support of the creation of the park in 2020. [See “Grand County Council Feb. 4,” Feb. 6 2020 edition. -ed.]

Lee Shenton, president of the Moab chapter of the Utah Friends of Paleontology nonprofit, told the committee that in a span of 10 days, 59 locals had pledged financial support towards the establishment of the park.

Supporters, including Grand County’s own Rep. Carl Albrecht and Rep. Christine Watkins, also pointed out the huge increase in outdoor recreation in recent years, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated the closing or canceling of many events, activities, and destinations. More park infrastructure, they said, will help accommodate those users and relieve some pressure on existing destinations.

“This bill addresses the tremendous demand for recreation in both these areas,” said Jeff Rasmussen, director of the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation, speaking of both the Lost Creek and Utahraptor parks. The surge in outdoor recreation has been apparent in Moab, with visitors flooding area national parks in record numbers. [See “Arches closes gate almost every day this October,” Oct. 29, 2020 edition. -ed.]

Albrecht suggested that the state park might one day offer an alternative entrance into Arches National Park to alleviate long wait lines at the main entrance.

During a discussion of the bill in the House, Rep. Keven Stratton (R-District 48) even suggested that the legislature should consider maintaining a regular fund for the protection of public land and the provision of recreation opportunities.

“As we talk about our role as a state and being wise stewards of the gifts that we’ve been given as a state, we need to recognize that at times there is a cost to that and that requires planning and effort and forethought and vision,” Stratton said.

Development in the area

The Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands is already working on a primitive campground in the Dalton Wells area. [See “Dalton Wells campsite planning underway,” July 31, 2020 edition. -ed.]

The project is largely funded by a grant from the Office of Outdoor Recreation, which Eliason’s team helped to secure when last year’s Utahraptor bill failed. Tony Mancuso, the local Sovereign Lands Coordinator who is in charge of the campground project, told the Moab Sun News last year that the campground will be built to state park standards, and should be compatible with the new designation.

While the timeline for the development of state park infrastructure is not yet clear, Eliason told the Moab Sun News that the money is already available, so he expects the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation will get started “as soon as possible.”

Development plans will include locating and developing potable water, potentially from springs on the property, bringing power to the site, improving roads, creating interpretive trails and building a visitor center.

The Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the Division of Parks and Recreation, already owns about 4,000 acres in the area. Officials hope the DNR will be able to facilitate a land swap with the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration to add another 2300 acres to the park. Some of the appropriated money may be used to buy the SITLA acres.

The park will, serendipitously, sit on a stretch of highway known as the Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Highway, which connects attractions such as Dinosaur National Monument, the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, and non-paleontological destinations such as Flaming Gorge, Natural Bridges, and Colorado national monuments.