Some state agencies and media outlets converged on the newly designated Utahraptor State Park today to talk about the park, create interview opportunities with legislators who made the deal happen, and give the state outlets a reason to come set their feet on the actual soil.
The biggest thing I learned out of the experience is that there are fossilized bone fragments sitting out in the open, identifiably if you know what to look for, right inside Dalton Wells — not even a 30-minute drive in total from the center of town to the location.
The fossils are illegal to take from the site, so I have nothing to show for my visit besides the photos I took, but they are literal dinosaur bones, just sitting out in the open, right on top of this moderate climb.
The location is known as the dinosaur quarry, and as easy as it is nowadays to find fossil fragments around the place, it was once virtually impossible to look at the ground without seeing a fossil. State Paleontologist Jim Kirkland recalled a scene from the site during a visit to the quarry.
“I remember coming up here in the 90s when Brooks and gang were working, and they were using the limb bones — the femurs and tibias of big sauropods (plant-eating dinosaurs) — as bridges to walk around the quarry,” Kirkland said.
“So, they were running around on these walkways, which were giant dinosaur limb bones,” he went on. “It was the only way — there were so many bones, that there was no other way to get through the thing without stepping on smaller, fragile bones, so it was just as well to walk on these big, strong, mass of bones that had rock under them to support them.”
The area is unique in Utah, but even more so, it is unique in the world. Kirkland said that the three oldest raptor fossils found in the world have come from the dinosaur quarry in Dalton Wells — an area that he said Lin Ottinger would casually recommend people check out if they wanted to see fossils.
“The density of bones here is pretty amazing, but it’s been vacuumed,” Kirkland said. “A lot of people come up here now. All these people camped here — they wander up. Lin Ottinger was sending people here for 30 years.”
Ottinger moved to Moab after attending a rock show in Idaho in the 1950s, where a piece of uranium ore was on display. He moved to the area and by the 1960s had opened his Rock Shop, which doubles as a geological and paleontological museum.
Rep. Steve Elliason, who sponsored the bill that established Utahraptor State Park, came along for the visit to the quarry and brought with him a fossil fragment that he purchased from Ottinger’s store.
The bone, like many in the quarry at Dalton Wells, has an orange patina and capillaries that run end-to-end inside the bone — not unlike the capillaries inside the bones of chickens.
Dinosaur bones are not the only mark of life to be found in the future site of Utahraptor State Park. Building foundations leftover from the site of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp — the relic of a New Deal-era public work relief program enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The camp hosted unemployed, unmarried men under the age of 29 who took up manual labor jobs that paid $30 per month — roughly equivalent to $600 by today’s standards — though most of the money had to be sent back home to the men’s families.
That CCC site was later repurposed into a concentration camp that, during World War II, held American citizens — in particular, Americans of Japanese descent accused of certain crimes — in what one state official described as the most harsh conditions for such camps in the entire program.
That official is Tony Mancuso, the Sovereign Lands Coordinator for Utah’s Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, who provided an historical overview of the area during the visit to Dalton Wells. He said that an historical marker at the site provided an apt characterization of the camps as a “black mark” on the country’s history.
That history, the prehistory at the dinosaur quarry, the geology of the green and red rocks, the recreation opportunities around the Dalton Wells Area — it is all to be preserved as the state moves forward with establishing Utahraptor State Park, administrative work on which is ongoing.
As for when construction, patrols, and a pay station will go in, the timing is uncertain for now, as land transfer and purchase agreements are currently in the works.
The state must first negotiate with the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration to purchase much of the land the park will encompass. A lease agreements with the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands will establish the smaller portion of the park.
Plans for the exact amenities that the park will offer are also still in draft. Though a visitor center might seem a natural amenity to include at the park, Grand County Commissioner Mary McGann said that such an offering could improperly compete with he nearby Dinosaur Museum at the intersection of state highways 313 and 191.
According to McGann, a public-private partnership between the state and the museum could be one way of ensuring that any visitor center does not threaten or sink the private enterprise — for example, through offering dual admission to the museum and the state park.
How the exact plans shake out remains to be seen. At the least, interpretive signs will mark and educate on the most noteworthy features in the park.
As for the namesake of the park, yet more Utahraptor fossils could remain at the dinosaur quarry beyond those already extracted from the site. For all the thousands of bones found at the dinosaur quarry, Kirkland, the state paleontologist, believes that even more is still there.
“Only 10% of the bone bed has been excavated, and that took them 30 years,” Kirkland said. In other words, in his estimation, nine times as many fossils still remain at the dinosaur quarry alone.