The paleontological world was dismayed by the Bureau of Land Management’s handling of a construction project at a renowned dinosaur tracksite last weekend. Paleontology and conservation groups have expressed outrage and disappointment with the local BLM office, which has not employed a full-time paleontologist since 2018.
In late January, workers from the BLM damaged some of the tracks at the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite, north of Moab, driving over them with heavy equipment while removing a wooden boardwalk from around the site to be replaced. The world-renowned site offers a unique and rich view into animal life 112 million years ago for both casual visitors and career researchers and scientists. Over 200 dinosaur tracks are preserved at the site in fossilized lime mud that forms a greenish, smooth rock layer. A BLM tractor repeatedly drove over some of the tracks in this layer in a drainage which was mostly obscured by a thin layer of dirt.
“When you put weight on it, it fractures, so you can most definitely damage the track surface and not know it until the freeze-thaw cycle,” said Lee Shenton, vice president of the local Gastonia chapter of the Utah Friends of Paleontology, which has contributed volunteer hours to stewardship of the Mill Canyon site over the years.
Shenton visited the site to assess the damage. While not as extensive as he at first feared—the site is certainly not “destroyed”—he said at least some of the tracks are certainly impacted.
The Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite north of Moab is, according to literature published by the Bureau of Land Management and the Utah Friends of Paleontology, “one of the largest and most diverse tracksites known from the Early Cretaceous time period in North America” and “one of the most significant Early Cretaceous tracksites in the world.” The site was discovered in 2009 and extensively excavated and studied over the next few years, revealing tracks made by as many as 10 types of animals. Some were the first evidence of those animals in North America. The site was developed with a raised boardwalk and interpretive signs so visitors could view the tracks and learn about the area’s natural history without damaging the prints.
“Please avoid walking directly on the track-bearing surface at all times, as these fossils are very fragile,” reads a BLM brochure for the site.
Thousands visit the tracks each year. A BLM environmental assessment for the project describes the old walkway, which was built in 2015, as creating a tripping hazard: its wooden decking continually warped in the extreme local climate. The boardwalk has been removed, and a new metal and concrete raised walkway is to be installed in the same location.
The assessment identified an out-of-use road that provided a short access route for heavy equipment to bring materials to the walkway site without damaging any tracks. However, the location of tracks periphery to the main site may not have been adequately communicated to crews conducting the work.
The environmental assessment says “The exposed trackway proximate to walkway construction would be marked and flagged for avoidance. A BLM representative would conduct onsite inspections during the construction to ensure that no tracks would be impacted.”
It’s not clear whether a qualified expert was on location to oversee the work, or that sensitive areas were flagged, though in a statement issued on Jan. 31, the BLM says it conducted the project according to its National Environmental Policy Act review.
“The Moab Field Office is working to improve safe public access with an updated boardwalk that is designed to protect the natural resources of this site,” the statement says. “During that effort, heavy equipment is on location, but it is absolutely not used in the protected area. The Moab Field Office has completed a National Environmental Policy Act analysis for this project and work is being conducted in accordance with that decision.”
Photos of equipment at the tracksite posted to Facebook soon led to alarm. Locals familiar with the site went to see for themselves.
“As soon as I heard about it, I was out there while the sun was low and you get really good light on the tracks,” said Shenton. He said that the damage does not appear to be extensive and equipment did not encroach on the main tracksite, but that he “saw some bonafide damage” to at least one track. Further damage may become evident after several freeze-thaw cycles or upon closer inspection.
Members of the Gastonia chapter of the UFoP are disappointed.
“It’s unfortunate that they did not hire a local paleontologist,” Shenton said. The Moab BLM’s former paleontologist, Dr. Rebecca Hunt-Foster, helped to found the local UFoP chapter and served as an effective liaison between the agency and the club as well as an informed advocate for local paleontological resources. She relocated to Dinosaur National Monument in 2018. BLM officials told the UFoP they would fill the vacant position within a few months, but there hasn’t been a local BLM paleontologist since, though the agency manages a significant number of paleontological sites. Paleontological resources in the Moab area have recently been publicly celebrated statewide as the new Utahraptor State Park was designated north of Moab in an area not far from the Mill Canyon tracksite.
State Paleontologist Jim Kirkland, who has conducted research in the Moab area, also visited the site over the weekend to assess the damage. He told news outlets that though the damage was not as extensive as social media made it out to be, it could have been avoided by consulting an expert. The environmental assessment says the agency consulted a natural resource specialist, a wildlife biologist, a fuels specialist, range management specialists, outdoor recreation planners, an archaeologist, a realty specialist, a geologist, and an engineering technician, but not a paleontologist.
“If ever there was a good case to have a paleontologist on staff, this is it,” Shenton said.
Conservation nonprofit the Center for Biological Diversity composed a scathing open letter to the Utah State Director of the BLM, Greg Sheehan, accusing the agency of failing to meet NEPA standards and other federal land management directives.
“In this case, BLM produced a perfunctory NEPA document which contained essentially no substantive analysis of the potential impacts of the project on paleontological resources. Instead it proposed a single mitigation measure–flagging the tracks–and apparently failed to even execute on that single mitigation measure.”
A public comment period for the walkway replacement project was opened in July of 2021, according to the BLM’s environmental assessment document, but no comments were received. The Gastonia chapter of UFoP was not specifically contacted for input on the project.
BLM officials declined to answer specific questions about whether tracks and sensitive areas on the site were flagged while the old boardwalk was removed and equipment brought in, or why the agency did not consult a paleontologist. Work on the project was paused in the wake of the public backlash. In a Feb. 2 statement, the BLM said that before work continues, a BLM regional paleontologist and the state paleontologist will be onsite.
“When construction resumes, we will ensure exposed trackways near the walkway construction will be marked and flagged for avoidance, per the environmental assessment and associated decision,” the statement says. “At this time, we have no evidence of any damage in the interpreted area, but out of an abundance of caution, a team will be dispatched to assess.”
Shenton hopes the incident might prompt the BLM Moab Field Office to consider hiring a paleontologist.
“Undermining your science community to save money doesn’t really save money,” he said. “I’d like to think that people understand that scientists don’t necessarily have a political agenda—it’s about science. We want to continue learning whatever our specialty is and help get insights for the rest of our communities.”
To find more information on the boardwalk replacement project, visit www.eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/2015048/510.
“If ever there was a good case to have a paleontologist on staff, this is it.” Lee Shenton