It doesn’t look like much: a simple dirt road branching off into a dusty pool, crisscrossed with tire tracks, surrounded by an unimpressive ridge line.
But when Jim Kirkland talks about what’s on this plateau and the surrounding Cedar Mountain formation, his eyes light up.
“This formation has more dinosaur species than any other formation on the planet,” Kirkland, the state of Utah paleontologist, told me last week as we walked along a rocky path. leading to the rock outcrop. “We only knew recently.”
The same geology that makes the Arches National Park formations possible has created a treasure trove of fossils from the Cretaceous Era, dating 110 million years old to upper levels and dating back to millions more buried deep.
The Dalton-Wells Quarry, the centerpiece of Utah’s new Utahraptor State Park, owes its name to where scientists discovered the first fragments of the famous dinosaur – the real star of the movie Jurassic Park, not the velociraptor, which was only the size. of a turkey.
But researchers have been removing dinosaurs from the ridge for decades – bird-like ornithomimids; at least four armored and stocky gastonia; a minimum of eight other Utahraptors; and 18 partial skulls from the massive, long neck, aptly named Moabosaurus.
And they are only scratching the surface.
“The site is so much bigger. They estimate that maybe 10% of the site has been searched, ”Kirkland said. “The very first part of the Cretaceous period is recorded there, and nowhere else in North America.”
Pursuit of a park
For decades, officials in Grand County have wanted to convert the site into a dinosaur park.
Around 1995, the Utah Legislature gave Grand County $ 15,000 to conduct a feasibility study, and the county hired an architect who drew up plans for what Kirkland described as a monument to himself – a tilted version of the Eiffel Tower that was supposed to resemble a brontosaurus neck with a view at the top – and they put a $ 15 million price tag on the project, more than anyone was willing to pay.
Over the next 25 years, paleontologists extracted fossils from the quarry. Brigham Young University has recovered more than 5,000 specimens on its own, Kirkland said.
And, of course, there were scavengers, who took away whatever they could from the site that might be worth anything – technically a crime, but nearly impossible to enforce.
The looting did not please Kenyon Roberts. In 2017, the 10-year-old dinosaur aficionado convinced family friend Senator Curt Bramble to sponsor a law to change the state’s official fossil from Allosaurus to Utahraptor.
In the process, he got to know Kirkland and went to see some digs, brush the bones and watch them remove the remains of an ankylosaurus. He also saw some of the damage done by thieves and asked what could be done to protect them.
“Yeah, it’s cool when your kid is playing sports, but when your kid wants to save nature it’s a proud moment for dad,” said Kenyon’s dad Jeremy Roberts, who asked Rep Steve Eliason and Senator Jani Iwamoto to sponsor the bill. designating the national park.
The proposal was not passed in the 2020 session, but was approved earlier this year and lawmakers allocated $ 30 million for Utahraptor Park and another new state park at Lost Creek Reservoir. Last Wednesday, Gov. Spencer Cox hosted a law signing ceremony and gave Kenyon a copy of the bill and the pen he used to sign it, which Kenyon said he plans to mentor and keep as a reminder of the effort.
A darker story
Dinosaur bones aren’t the site’s only story.
As you walk up the dirt road to the quarry, you pass the remains of the gate that was once an entrance to a Civilian Conservation Corps camp for workers who built the roads and structures in the nearby Arches. But during WWII it was transformed into a Japanese concentration camp – a little Utahns know.
Barely a trace of the site remains – just a few concrete blocks and a pile of bricks on the corner of a block, overgrown with bushes.
After guards fired at a crowd of unarmed Japanese internees at the Manzanar camp in California in 1942, the War Relocation Authority transferred 16 suspected troublemakers to the temporary isolation center.
“The point of bringing them here is that they were people saying, ‘Hey, you’re stealing our food. Hey, what about our civil rights? According to Claudia Katayanagi, who directed “A Bitter Legacy,” a documentary on Japanese camps, and visited the site with us. “Everyone who started to resist, they wanted to get rid of them so as not to incite others.”
While it only operated for about six months, at its peak, around 50 people were confined there, under close surveillance by armed guards.
“In a sense, Moab has become a symbol of inmate control,” Katayanagi told me. “When they brought the men here, there were four guards for each person. If you wanted to go to the bathroom, you had to take a guard with you. In this camp, you have to speak English, you cannot speak Japanese.
When the government decided to shut down the facility, the camp administrator had a 5ft by 6ft box built, placed it in the back of a flatbed truck, and drove five of the remaining captives for 1 p.m. at the Leupp isolation center. at the southern end of the Navajo Nation, not far from Winslow, Arizona.
“It made me very moving to think about how these people were placed in these horrible places,” Iwamoto told me after we visited the site. The park, however, offers the opportunity to tell a part of this dark story. “They’re going to point that out as well, and I think it’s really important,” she said.
There is a lot of work to be done to set up a park here, and that work will fall to state park officials and Megan Blackwelder, now the director of Dead Horse State Park, who has been hired to run the state park. of Utahraptor.
“She has paleo experience and she will do a great job,” Kirkland said. “I’m so glad she’s responsible for it.”
Naturally, there will be some sort of memorial and interpretive site marking the concentration camp, although it is not clear what this will look like.
The several dozen trailers camped in the valley will have to leave. There are plans to set up designated campsites, possibly up to 100 of them. There are also discussions about the possibility of allowing visitors to access Arches National Park via the national park, entering through the original north entrance to the park.
Kirkland said he would like to see temporary structures built above the quarry where visitors can watch scientists work on their excavations. At the very least, he said, the presence of the park will discourage people from vandalizing the remains and trying to escape with bones.
“I really think the Utah geological record is really unique in the world, the fossil record and it took a lot of people working together to preserve it,” Kenyon Roberts told me. “It is also very important that we tell the story of what happened to the Japanese there.”
So while it might not seem like much now, it’s an exciting prospect – the chance to preserve two important eras in Utah history, to better manage recreational opportunities, to help the economy. of Grand County and, hopefully, to excite generations of children about the history and science of the park and the surrounding area.