HB322 calls for one-time $10M funding infusion
“Here’s your headline: ‘A new state park 145 million years in the making.’”
So said State Rep. Steve Eliason on Friday, Feb. 14, a few hours after he held a press conference in Salt Lake City to announce House Bill 322, which aims to create Utahraptor State Park at the Dalton Wells dinosaur site north of Moab. With him were Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus, State Reps. Carl Albrecht and Christine Watson and Dr. Jim Kirkland, the State paleontologist with the Utah Geological Survey, among others.
Eliason has a history of championing new state park proposals, but Utahraptor State Park is the first that doesn’t involve federal lands and over complicated deals to turn them into state lands.
HB322 calls for a one-time expenditure of $10 million to build campsites and make other improvements. He said the funding would likely come from State Building Board revenues rather than the general fund. The park would become virtually self-sustaining once it opens to the public.
Eliason said he was grateful for the approval he received from the Grand County Council. “That’s what I really wanted,” before making the announcement, said the Sandy Republican.
“You folks in Moab have a real need for more campsites,” he said, adding the push to turn the site into a state park is due in large part to unmanaged dry, or dispersed camping, as well as widespread littering and nearly constant vandalism.
He admitted his first name choice was Jurassic State Park in order to cash in on the popular Jurassic Park movie franchise, until he learned most of the wildly diverse fossils in Grand County are from the Cretaceous Period, the last and longest segment of the Mesozoic Era. It lasted about 79 millions years and began when the Jurassic Period ended about 145 million years ago.
Ironically, the Utahraptor — Dr. Kirkland discovered the raptor at the site in 1989 and eventually recovered nearly eight full skeletons now on display around the world — proved the velociraptors that carried the Jurassic Park movies did indeed exist. They just weren’t Jurassic.
There is a nine-ton block of stone at Dalton Wells that is full of fossils. There are dozens of different types of dinosaur fossils at the site, which has been excavated for 45 years. Roughly 5,000 bones have been removed and perhaps as many as 100,000 remain. But for how long?
Eliason said he is “very optimistic” his colleagues in the Utah Legislature will approve HB322. “We don’t know a single party who opposes this.”
And while Eliason is confident the park will be approved, there is a lot of work that needs to be done.
Kirkland at the Valentine’s Day press conference announcing HB322 used a PowerPoint presentation to advocate for Utahraptor State Park.
The land is currently under the control of State Sovereign Lands and management of the 1,200-acre site must be consolidated. Utah State Parks needs to be brought on board, said Kirkland. Funding must be approved for infrastructure. The community support is already there.
Headquarters for a camp host needs to be constructed, as do campsites and outhouses. The dinosaur site must be stabilized; interpretive trails developed, as well as exhibits at the park’s visitors’ center.
Eliason said a second entrance to Arches National Park also could be developed.
There is more at stake here than a need to thwart vandals and litterbugs.
From Kirkland’s perspective, the idea of preserving Grand County’s fossils is a no-brainer. He said in his presentation that Grand County is home to the most complete record of fossils from the lower Cretaceous Period, perhaps in the world. There are dinosaur bones that are found nowhere else in North America outside of Grand County. There are more than 50 dinosaur species here — many more than what has been found in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — and 28 of those species are found only in Grand County, such as the Utahraptor.
More specifically, Dalton Wells is home to one of the largest dinosaur beds on the continent. The site needs protection. Kirkland said it’s vandalized “nearly every day.” Fossils can’t be replaced, he noted. No fewer than 10 scientific papers have been published with many more pending. It is the best site in the county to present this unique period in time with full cast skeletons of several different types of dinosaurs on display in museums around the world.