What do these have in common?

Possible footprints of a giant plant-eating dinosaur from a period millions of years before the first such sauropods were known to exist.

Around 415,000 visitors from around the world in the past 2 1/2 years.

Scores of tracks of dinosaurs, including some that may have been swimming together with their claws scraping the mud at the bottom of a lake.

A project that straightens out troubled youths.

Ancient fish remains, scales and bones included.

Plant fossils.

Fossilized dino droppings that could give an indication of what the monsters ate.

Impressions of dinosaur skin and a tail drag.

Almost no funding.

Answer: The dinosaur track site in St. George discovered early in 2000. The good news is that this world-class site is on track for funding by Congress that should preserve it and help educate visitors.

The Virgin River Dinosaur Footprint Preserve Act recently passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, while the House version swept through that body under the guidance of Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah.

An aide to Hatch said he expects the measure to pass in the fall as part of larger land bill.

The bill would give St. George either $500,000 or the fair market value of 10 acres of land (whichever is smaller) to purchase the property from private owners.

Then a better fence would be constructed and a visitor center built, said LaVerna B. Johnson, president of "DinosaurAH!torium," the center that will be built.

She and her husband, Sheldon, own the land where Sheldon discovered many of the footprints. Across the highway, another half-acre site is yielding more remains, and they too would be protected by the bill.

"This $500,000 will be seed money," she said in a telephone interview. "It will get us started and will be able to build us something" to preserve the remains.

St. George officials are thinking about building a bridge across the highway to connect the twin sites. Meanwhile, she is working on designs for a visitor center.

"Our visitors are wonderful, and our volunteers are the best in the world," she said. "They're under the most extreme conditions, and they've just done a wonderful job."

Most days the dinosaur trackway site is open, but on extremely hot days it may be curtailed or hours of operation reduced.

"Since we have a volunteer staff here that is on the older side, we want to protect them from the heat," said Theresa Walker, tracks coordinator for the St. George Leisure Services Division.

The same goes for the public. People continue to arrive in amazing numbers. Walker estimates the level at 3,800 to 6,800 monthly, with a total of around 415,000 so far.

No admission is charged, but donations are requested. If visitors can't afford to donate, they are welcome to go inside the gate free, she said, "that's fine with us."

School children frequently arrive on outings.

"We've had as many as 20 buses there on one day," LaVerna Johnson said. "We don't like that so much."

That day was "just wild," she said. "We had to call in extra people to help."

Andrew Milner, paleontologist for the city of St. George, said the site, which dates to the lower Jurassic era, 200 million to 205 million years ago, could yield more discoveries.

"We don't have one layer of tracks," he said. "We have a total of 11 dinosaur track levels . . . and I have a feeling that with some more digging we might find more."

On a couple of these clear, sharp tracks, extremely rare skin impressions show up. "Very much like you would see on a bird," Milner said, "with a chicken foot, or a lizard, very scaly looking."

Swim tracks that were discovered are parallel streaks left by the claws of small, three-toed meat-eaters as they swam. "As it kicked its feet, it would leave these three sets of scratch lines that taper on each end."

The paleontologists need to collect more slabs of rock, some of which were scattered, in order to reconstruct this information.

A force of about 15 regular volunteers helps guide visitors through the stunning array of remains. Another eight preparation volunteers are helping to preserve and consolidate the tracked rocks. Then there are the youths who are being mentored, about half a dozen at any time.

One of the most inspiring stories is the ancient beasts' impact on troubled youth. Walker said some youngsters with minor infractions have served court-ordered time at the site, helping the volunteers.

"By the time they get done, we have them volunteering on a regular basis out here," she said. "It's one of the bigger successes I feel we've done for the community."


E-MAIL: bau@desnews.com