The Center for Biological Diversity issued a cease-and-desist letter to the Utah Bureau of Land Management after several weekend reports emerged that the agency had ruined some ancient dinosaur tracks in a project to replace the boardwalk at Mill Canyon outside of Moab.
Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director at the center, said he was outraged by the destruction at the site, adding it calls into question the ability of the federal agency to manage lands.
Donnelly went on to add that the bureau calls the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite “one of the most significant early Cretaceous (dinosaur) track sites in the world.” It features more than 200 dinosaur tracks preserved in sedimentary rock, representing 10 distinct species of dinosaur.
Researchers at the University of Colorado, Denver, ranked the site as No. 7 out of 12 in dinosaur track sites in the United States.
Last year, the BLM approved a project to replace an existing boardwalk at the site with a raised concrete-and-steel trail.
In the approval, the agency said any risks to the dinosaur tracks would be mitigated by flagging sensitive areas and providing “onsite inspections during construction.”
A statement released late Monday from the Bureau of Land Management in Utah said its field office was working to improve safe public access to the site with an updated boardwalk designed to protect the natural resources there.
“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. When work resumes, it will continue to protect the natural resources,” said Rachel Wootton, a spokeswoman for the BLM Utah office.
No comments about the damage were released amid the criticism regarding the agency’s devotion to protecting the natural resources.
Jim Kirkland, paleontologist for the state of Utah, drove to the site Sunday to check it for damage after the project’s impact blew up on social media over the weekend.
“There is damage and there is no reason there should be any damage,” Kirkland said. “It is not completely destroyed as some people were suggesting, but I was pretty scared.”
I’m just curious why @BLMUtah would park a bulldozer on one of North America’s top dinosaur track sites? Why would they rip out a board walk and attempt to replace it with something much heavier and without a paleontologist to supervise? @T_rexellence, would you have any idea?— Jeremy Roberts (@JeremyBRoberts) January 28, 2022
He added that no one knew of the work being done at Mill Canyon in the federal agency’s own sphere of paleontologists and none of the work should have been done without a paleontologist on site.
“The poor guy driving the backhoe is terrified he is going to lose his job, but it is not his fault.”
Roberts, whose son Kenyon successfully pushed the Utah Legislature and governor’s office to adopt the raptor as the state’s official “fossil” and also lobbied for the creation of the Utah Raptor Park, said he and his family are extremely upset over the damage that happened.
“This is Disneyland for people who love dinosaurs.”
The investment banker said when he first heard about the project, he called Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, with both under the presumption is was about to happen. It had already started.
“Mike Lee is a good man, he is going to get to the bottom of this.”
Roberts added that he was also in touch with Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, who he said confirmed to him he was coincidentally meeting Monday night with top Interior Department officials over dinner while in Washington, D.C., attending the National Governors Association and Republican Governors Association.
“He told me that Mill Canyon is the No. 1 issue he was going to bring up, this track site,” Roberts said.
Efforts to get information from the office’s of Cox and Lee were unsuccessful on Monday.
Kirkland said what makes the damage so needless is that the project failed to go through the public comment process, which would have alerted those in the paleontology community, Kirkland said.
“It’s tragic. It’s silly,” he said, adding any paleontologist — those inside and outside of the agency — would have gone down to Mill Canyon to supervise on-site work.
“It should have been out for public comment,” Kirkland said. “People should have been contacted.”
Kirkland said the new walkway is a quarter-million dollar project, and with that price tag there should have been a shelter for the tracks to keep them from being exposed to the elements.
“What were they thinking?” he said. “I would have put a shelter over the site.”
He added that by the time people heard about the project to replace the boardwalk, it was already underway.
“There’s damage and it is unnecessary. This should have been done with a real sense of excellence. ... Mill Canyon was a major discovery and a real jewel in Utah’s crown.”
Sue Sternberg, who used to volunteer at Mill Canyon as a site steward, visited the site twice over the weekend to survey the damage.
“It is fine if they want to replace the boardwalk, but my gosh, contact the paleontologists, contact the experts.”
Both Sternberg and Kirkland lamented the lack of a BLM paleontologist in the BLM’s Moab office, a position that apparently has gone unfilled for years.
“That boggles my mind,” she said, given Mill Canyon’s value and that of other paleontological records in the region.