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Paleontology in the parks

On a cool autumn day in November, Ted Fremd and a cadre of volunteer professional paleontologists embarked on a journey of discovery through the 5- to 50- million-year old fossil beds in Oregon — just as they do every Monday. That day they found a new record of tiny insectivores and a primitive marsupial with teeth the size of the period at the end of this sentence.

As a paleontologist at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Kimberly, Ore., Fremd plays a major role in shaping the direction of research coming out of the park. The Monday field trips are just a small part. Fremd is one of only a handful of paleontologists who work in the National Park Service, and that number is shrinking with recent position management decisions at another national park, Dinosaur National Monument in Jensen, Utah.

A National Park Service scientist measures the strata in the Clarno Unit of John Day Fossil Beds, site of the most diverse record of petrified wood (66 different species) from any location or age on Earth. It is one of more than 500 fossil localities within Oregon’s John Day Basin managed by the National Park Service. Photo by K. McCarville.

Established in 1915, six years after paleontologist Earl Douglass discovered vast fossil beds straddling the Utah-Colorado border, Dinosaur has boasted a premiere paleontology program. Douglass’s original quarry, where he unearthed Jurassic-aged dinosaur remains, now forms a spectacular fossil wall inside the park’s visitor center.

In October, park administrators announced that they would be cutting one preparator position, now held by paleontologist Scott Madsen, over the next year. Additionally, they changed the role of the chief paleontology position, now held by Dan Chure, from a research-oriented position to more of a management position. At such time as Chure decides to leave, his position will become a “physical resources program specialist” — a broader position Dinosaur will fill with a vertebrate paleontologist. About a year before, another paleontological preparator, Ann Elder, became a curator for all collections at Dinosaur. Bottom line: where there once were three paleontology positions, there soon will be only one.

News of these changes, though tangled in a web of uncertainty and misinformation, came out just in time for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) meeting in Norman, Okla., and sent the paleontological community into a frenzy. SVP, as well as numerous universities and science organizations worldwide, have written letters urging the Park Service to reconsider its decisions. How could the flagship national park for paleontology remove the paleontologists from its staff?
The decisions at Dinosaur also have many wondering what direction paleontological research is and should be heading in the parks.

When Fremd joined the National Park Service in 1979, he was one of two paleontologists in the entire Park Service. The second paleontologist was at Dinosaur, a position that Chure filled just a few months after Fremd came onboard. Since that time, the number of paleontologists in national parks has grown to about a dozen or so.

“The Service in general, if you look over the past 20 years, has been moving from being a passive caretaker of paleontological resources, pretty much reacting to research requests … as opposed to the tendency now, which is to prepare and conduct research plans and have onsite professional scientists who themselves gain credibility by publishing peer-reviewed research, and also have some sort of a vision for what the nature of the resources are,” Fremd says.

The Dinosaur changes seem to represent an unfortunate anomaly in this trend, Fremd says. John Day Fossil Beds, at about 13,000 acres vs. Dinosaur’s approximately 200,000 acres, has four full-time permanent paleontological positions, is building an $11-million paleontological research center and manages paleontological resources on all federal lands east of the Cascade Range. It seems strange, he says, that while John Day is booming on the West Coast, Dinosaur’s paleontological program is suffering.

Chas Cartwright, superintendent at Dinosaur, says that their decisions, driven largely by budgetary constraints, were anything but easy to make, but are in line with a new model of scientific research in the national parks. “We are most certainly making a cut; we’re going from two positions to one, and that’s tough. But do I believe, and have I seen in other resource program areas in the Park Service, that this kind of model can get more work done? Yes, I do and I have.”

That new model, Cartwright says, shifts the research focus toward outside partnerships with academic institutions and research organizations and away from full-time research positions, such as the one held by Chure. “Several years ago, we lost most of our science folks and have been undergoing a transition where we rely on a program called Cooperative Ecosystem Study Units [CESU] — partnerships with academia, where we can bring more experts and a wider range of ideas to the parks.”

Indeed, in 1993, the Park Service transferred its research biologists, then representing the majority of scientists in the parks, to the newly created National Biological Service, a separate Department of the Interior agency that became the Biological Resources Division at the U.S. Geological Survey. More recently, the Park Service created a five-year Natural Resources Challenge, which ends this year, to promote science in the parks. CESU is part of that program as it encourages collaboration with universities by federal agencies, such as the Park Service.

“The change is that we’re moving even more in the direction of having a wealth of different folks involved in getting the kind of science we need to do a good job of managing this park,” Cartwright says.

Chure says his job always has been to conduct research and communicate it to the public, and to facilitate outside partnerships, including the multiyear, national Morrison Ecosystem Project — a project that examined the significant fossil resources in the Morrison Formation. The changes, he says, came as a surprise to the staff of what he considers a very successful and reputable paleontology program.

“In the end, there won’t be anyone who is focusing on the main resource for which the park was established,” Chure says. When Cartwright announced the new management plan to the park’s staff, Chure recalls, someone asked him directly whether these changes meant there would no longer be a paleontological program at the park. “And his direct answer was, ‘That’s right. There won’t be.’”

A briefing statement on the new position management plan at Dinosaur says that the park cannot afford “to assign a subject matter expert to handle specific resource problems.” The new physical resources program specialist will have to manage resources ranging from fossils and geology to water and air quality.
David Shaver, chief of the Geologic Resources Division for the National Park Service, says that since 1996, when his division was created, the Service has been pushing to bring more science into decision making. The news coming out of Dinosaur is troubling, he says. “We ought to be moving toward more emphasis on science in resource management and not less. If we have to cut, we shouldn’t cut from science.”

But, Shaver says, finding adequate financial resources is a serious challenge. All involved agree on the multi-faceted role paleontologists ought to play in the Park Service in facilitating scientific research, but opinions differ on how best to accomplish that goal on a limited budget. If nothing else, he says, the situation at Dinosaur “has raised the issue with upper management of the Park Service’s role related to research.” Shaver is hopeful that discussions currently underway will effect positive change.

Fremd says he too hopes to see a silver lining for his sister park, Dinosaur. He says he is quite proud of the National Park Service and the advances it has made in protecting and understanding its vast fossil resources.

“Many parks are in a position to really unravel pretty important questions from broad issues, like global climate change, to just pure taxonomic issues,” Fremd says. “These aren’t static places; there are things being discovered all the time.”

Lisa M. Pinsker

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