Moab is a hotspot for dinosaur digs, fossil excavations and all things related to paleontology. In recent years, one couple has had a massive impact on paleontology in canyon country – ReBecca Hunt-Foster and John Foster. Unfortunately for Moabites interested in dinosaurs, they will be moving to Vernal at the end of this summer.
The couple founded the local Gastonia Chapter of Utah Friends of Paleontology and both made significant contributions to the wealth research happening around Moab. ReBecca Hunt-Foster is the paleontologist for the Canyon Country District of the Bureau of Land Management. John Foster, also a paleontologist, is currently the executive director of the Museum of Moab. They are moving to Vernal because Hunt-Foster was hired to be the paleontologist for Dinosaur National Monument.
In an official statement, BLM Public Affairs Specialist Lisa Bryant said, “Dr. ReBecca Hunt-Foster… is a valuable asset, serving the local community and visitors with her expertise, enthusiasm, and commitment to science and education.”
Serving as an advisor for the chapter of UFOP that she helped found, Hunt-Foster played a key role in many of its activities. Lee Shenton, president of Moab’s Gastonia Chapter of UFOP, said she coordinated their volunteer efforts and “made us aware of where the opportunities were.” She served in the advisory role since the beginning of the chapter. “Besides being a really nice person, she’s very knowledgeable,” Shenton added.
Aside from her role with UFOP, Hunt-Foster involved herself in the Moab community in a variety of ways. According to Shenton, Hunt-Foster “directs disbursement of federal grant money that supports paleontology in southeastern Utah.” Hunt-Foster has been instrumental in bringing researchers to Moab and connecting them with the community. “We’ve been able to bring in paleontologists from all over the world to come in and talk to people that live in Moab… once a month about all the cool research that’s taking place in this area,” Hunt-Foster said.
Some of the scientists Hunt-Foster has helped bring to Moab include a Portuguese researcher to talk about sauropod dinosaurs, multiple people to discuss small Jurassic mammals found in the Morrison Formation and Jim Kirkland, Utah’s state paleontologist, who has visited several times to explain various finds both recent and historic. “Moab has so many wonderful fossils it’s easy to have a whole different slew of people come through all the time,” said Hunt-Foster.
Hunt-Foster also conducts her own research. One of her latest accomplishments was leading the team that studied and classified the first dinosaur discovered in Arkansas, the Arkansaurus fridayi. “I recently named a dinosaur from Arkansas,” Hunt-Foster said, noting that the specimen was approximately the “same age as the tracks that we have at the [Mill Canyon] dinosaur track site.”
During his four-year tenure as Executive Director, John Foster has helped bring improvements to the Museum of Moab. Speaking to the Grand County Council, museum board member Tim Smith said, “what a great job John has done. The museum is in a stronger position than four years ago…in virtually any way you would like to measure: financially, scientifically…and staff capacity.”
Museum board president Dennis Brown offered a similar sentiment, “he’s well-respected in the community and liked and we’ll miss him.” Brown added that Foster has “been involved in the excavations of some of the more important digs around this area.”
A dig Brown likely had in mind was Foster’s discovery of the oldest dinosaur fossil ever found in Utah. Discussing that find, Foster said the fossil was from the “geologically oldest sauropod in North America.” Foster noted that the TV series National Geographic Explorer recently filmed an episode about the find, though it won’t air until January.
Foster said his departure comes at an exciting time for the museum. Starting in October, the museum will close for a three-phase renovation project. The six-month process will involve moving all the exhibits on display into storage, remodeling the building to relocate the staircase and then putting in all new exhibits. “Especially with the new exhibits, everything is accelerating,” Foster said, “we’re having to leave right at a time when it’s about to get really interesting.”
Some of the new exhibits will feature fossils prepared in the prep lab that Foster was key in setting up at the museum. A prep lab is “a facility where you have the proper tools and set up to carefully remove the rock from around a fossil without damaging the fossil,” said Shenton. Foster trained volunteers on how to use, maintain and repair equipment in the prep lab. Shenton, who volunteered in the prep lab, said Foster would “help us understand better ways to do things and tell us what we were looking at and just add a lot to the experience for us amateurs.”
Leaving the museum may give Foster more time to work on his writing. He has already published multiple books on paleontology and is now working on the second edition of his book on the Morrison Formation. The book covers “all the late Jurassic age dinosaurs from around here and the Rocky Mountain region in general,” Foster said. He also described the work that has gone into updating the book, “so much has changed on that subject…it was at least as much work as doing the first one and possibly more.”
When she was able to get more personal than in her official BLM statement, Bryant addressed the paleontologist couple, “you’ve both done so much at the cusp of really building programs…paleontology has always been important here, but it’s not been a program with this amount of outreach, public involvement and community service…both [of you] will be missed”
The couple was excited to move to Vernal and sad to be leaving Moab. Reflecting on their time here, Hunt-Foster said, “we’ve gotten a lot done in a short time.” Hunt-Foster was particularly proud of BLM efforts at the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail, when they “excavated, documented, published, and then built what I think is a really great trail…with local community support and help.” She noted similar efforts all around the area, “we’ve upgraded all of our paleontology trails…they all have new and updated signage and those trails have all been rehabbed through projects on National Public Lands Day and National Fossil Day.”
Despite all their hard work, Hunt-Foster claimed there is so much more to be done in the field of paleontology around Moab. “There’s no shortage of things to do here,” she said, “there’s hundreds of years’ worth of work to do.”