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U.S. LANDS THAT HARBOR EONS OF HISTORY NEED PROTECTION

I've just returned from an expedition in search of the world's biggest game. I led a safari of grandchildren into a wilderness of real dinosaurs.

We set out armed with paintbrushes and whisk brooms, dental picks and screwdrivers, chipping hammers and trowels. We followed tracks a dinosaur left in the mud 145 million years ago. We also found dinosaur bones that had been strewn around prehistoric water holes.Our odd hunting gear was selected to chisel the petrified bones out of the hardened mud. These remains suggest that carnivorous dinosaurs had ambushed their kindred at the drinking font.

Generations of thirsty dinosaurs stomped the bones into the muck. This indignity was followed by eons of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, downpours and erosion, which buried the bones two miles deep in the earth, geologists estimate.

Then one eon, Mother Nature heaved the bones to the surface in a massive eruption. This eruption produced a massive, prehistoric slab covering most of western Colorado and eastern Utah.

This is a country of few population centers. Our headquarters is the Devils Canyon Science and Learning Center, a short turn-off from I-70 outside Fruita, Colo.

The center is an indoor dinosaur playground that looks like a scene out of "Jurassic Park." Realistic, animated dinosaur-robots swing their heads, roll their eyes and growl ominously. One spits at children who venture too close. The center also offers some hands-on, sandbox paleontology for youngsters, who learn how to unearth simulated dinosaur bones made of plaster.

This incredible, isolated learning center is operated by the Dinamation International Society, which also provided our guides. They led my tribe across the Utah border, where paleontologist Jim Kirkland showed us the hardrock Jurassic boneyard where he discovered the biggest, smartest, most ferocious raptor that prowled that long-ago world.

The find made an honest man of Steven Spielberg, who had chosen velociraptors to be the stars of "Jurassic Park." When he started filming the epic movie, the largest known raptors were 10 feet long and weighed only 100 pounds. To make them more terrifying, Spielberg blew them up to a much larger size.

But before the movie was finished, Kirkland identified a raptor every bit as big and agile as the movie's fictional raptor - a superslasher that could outsmart and outfight any creature that got in its way. Kirkland named his find the Utahraptor.

Unfortunately, some officials here worry that economics might soon intrude on their paleontological playground. Under state charter, Utah is allowed to sell any lands held in trust to raise money for schools. Kirkland and others believe that current safeguards in the law are not enough to prevent the state from selling lands that might include valuable fossils or artifacts. State officials claim no such sale will occur.

Selling any of these lands - even for a worthy goal like education - would be pure folly.