Utahraptor State Park would protect discovery site of Utah’s namesake dinosaur
Lawmaker seeks $10 million to establish Utah’s 45th state park, conserve world-famous fossil treasure trove
SALT LAKE CITY — The man who named the ferocious prehistoric predator that was more accurately featured in “Jurassic Park” — the Utahraptor, not the velociraptor — held up a claw he dug from the Dalton Wells Quarry in Grand County back in 1991.
The sickle-shaped claw, reconstructed to resemble its true shape on the toe of a living, breathing Utahraptor, was even longer than the claw in the Spielberg classic that fictional paleontologist Alan Grant used to terrify a snarky teen.
Jim Kirkland, Utah’s state paleontologist, showed how it dwarfed a tiny claw of the actual velociraptor, holding it between the tip of two fingers.
“The star of Jurassic Park?” Kirkland said, laughing. “I think not.”
The Utahraptor used its over 9-inch claws to attack and rip apart its prey. While velociraptors were much smaller, Utahraptor adults grew to around 20 feet long and about 5 feet tall at the hip, according to paleontologists.
Oh, and “Jurassic Park” also left off the feathers.
The Utahraptor fossils were brought to Utah’s Capitol Hill Friday to kick off an effort to get $10 million in state funds to create Utah’s 45th state park: Utahraptor State Park. It would honor of one of the most famous, yet often wrongly identified, dinosaurs discovered in Utah’s red rock country.
The state park would protect, preserve and celebrate Dalton Wells Quarry in Grand County where the Utahraptor’s first fossils were discovered. Located about 15 miles northwest of Moab and west of Arches National Park, Dalton Wells is among the quarries that rim the Cedar Mountain Formation, which contains one of the richest early Cretaceous dinosaur bone deposits in the world, dated over 125 million years ago. The quarry is right on the Dinosaur Diamond National Scenic Byway.
“It’s a very, very rich place for dinosaurs,” Kirkland said.
Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, is leading the charge with HB322 that would establish the state park and fund new amenities like state-of-the-art campgrounds, RV parking, restrooms, park areas, trails, roads and more. The bill is also seeking $375,000 in ongoing funds for park operations.
Though it’s not currently contemplated in the plans, Eliason said the state park could someday feature a museum, where maybe a full Utahraptor fossil skeleton could someday be displayed, along with other fossils dug straight out of the quarry.
“How cool would it be to take your family camping with critters like this?” joked Mike Mower, Gov. Gary Herbert’s deputy chief of staff, as he held up a mini replica of the Utahraptor at a news conference Friday.
After all, the Utahraptor State Park is 145 million years “in the making,” Mower said.
“How cool is it that Utah, of all 50 states, has the coolest dinosaur out there that’s named after our state?” Mower said. “The fact that we’re making this a state park really puts this up there as something incredible, not only now, but for years to come.”
As proposed, the Utahraptor State Park would include about 6,500 acres in Grand County, all made up state land, managed by either the state Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands or the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration. Since it’s all state-owned, with no federal jurisdiction, it has better chances of becoming a state park, Eliason said.
Dalton Wells is already a popular camping location, teeming with mountain biking and dirt bike trails. But it lacks amenities — no restrooms, no trash cans — and has become unfortunately littered with “Charmin’s lily,” or white tufts of toilet paper, Eliason said.
Dalton Wells’ history isn’t just for dinosaurs, either. It was also the site of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, or the Moab Isolation Center, which was used as a Japanese American internment camp during World War II.
The Dalton Wells Quarry also features what Kirkland called the “most spectacular views” of not only dinosaur bone excavation sites, but also of the Arches area — all areas worth protecting.
While paleontologists still have multiple “lifetimes of work” already excavated out of the Dalton Wells Quarry still waiting to be studied, Kirkland said the area has become a popular place for vandals or curious diggers who “scratch the surface” for bones.
Eliason said the Utahraptor State Park would protect the geological wonders, the dinosaur gold mines for generations to come while also bringing amenities to increase access for future generations of Utahns.
“It’s one of the most exciting state park opportunities in our history,” Eliason told the Deseret News. “This has everything. It has recreation, it has historical significance, a huge chunk of our fossil record and many existing fossils still yet to be excavated, and it’s in the epicenter of tourism in the state.”
Eliason noted it has a significant fiscal note, amid a year when legislative leaders have said it may be a tricky budget year, but he’s hopeful to find some revenue sources from restricted funds that could be eligible for the one-time $10 million request.
If not, Eliason said he’ll keep trying next year — and the year after that, if need be — to make Utahraptor State Park a reality.