A future in fossils

August 31, 2001 12:00 am
The Painted Hills are one of the attractions at the John Day Fossil Beds. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).
The Painted Hills are one of the attractions at the John Day Fossil Beds. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).

By JOHN COTE

Of The (Bend) Bulletin

JOHN DAY FOSSIL BEDS NATIONAL MONUMENT The answer to North Central Oregons economic woes may lie hidden in the terraced hillsides, undisturbed for the last 54 million years. Fossils, local officials hope, are the key to fiscal health.

With $8.4 million in federal funds earmarked to build a state-of-the-art paleontology center here, National Park Service scientists are giddy at the research prospects. Local officials, meanwhile, see the center as a chance to use tourism-related businesses to transform a regional economy crippled by the slumping timber industry.

The proposed Thomas Condon Paleontology Center would capitalize on the unique fossil record at the monument, the only known site in the world that shows an almost continuous 40-million-year history of plant and animal life.

Plans call for the 11,500-square-foot center to have a research laboratory, education facilities and an exhibition hall. The lab areas will be horseshoed around a central visitors section, allowing people to watch scientists through glass as they sort, catalog, prepare and study fossils.

Its mainly designed for scientific research but in a format to show the public what science does, said John Fiedor, chief of visitor services for the fossil beds. I think it will prove to be a wonderful museum for scientific work while demonstrating how Oregon got to be the way it is today.

A 50-seat auditorium with video options and multi-media connections will serve students ranging from grade school to graduate school.

The current visitor center, a converted ranch house built in 1917, lacks group facilities, forcing the more than 800 students who visit annually to sit on the ranch-house lawn for presentations.

The exhibit area, being designed by Kevin Britz of the High Desert Museum in Bend, will feature murals and three-dimensional exhibits of massive prehistoric mammals done to scale.

The $8.4 million for the centers design and construction is included in both the House and Senate versions of the 2002 federal budget. The two chambers still have to reconcile their versions and put a final budget on the desk of President Bush. Park Service officials said, however, they were optimistic the money would be allocated, despite two unsuccessful attempts for funding since the mid-80s.

Our project is needed, said Fiedor. Theres a lot of projects to be done and a limited amount of money, but we think the time has come for this.

Scientists at the fossil beds which consist of three separate geographical areas: the Clarno Unit, 20 miles west of Fossil; the Painted Hills Unit, nine miles northwest of Mitchell; and the Sheep Rock Unit, six miles west of Dayville see the proposed center as a means to significantly advance mankinds understanding of what happened on the planet between 54 million and 6 million years ago.

With their unique strata of sedimentary rock and volcanic ash, the fossil beds contain one of the longest and most continuous records of evolution on the planet. That allows scientists from around the world to compare their findings with known fossil records at the John Day site to determine evolutionary patterns.

Most sites just give you a snapshot. Here were looking at a movie, said Scott Foss, collections manager at the fossil beds. This is a place where you can put it all together.

The proposed center will only increase cooperation in the scientific community, said Foss and head paleontologist Ted Fremde, who currently work with 50 specialists around the globe.

After its scheduled opening in Spring 2004, Fiedor also projected the new center would attract 100,000 visitors a year quadruple the number who annually visit the current center, located across the street from the proposed site at the Sheep Rock unit.

Such a large center will be a go-to type attraction, said Fiedor.

Many residents and local officials hope hes right.

Theyre mobilizing to create services for destination tourism, hoping the center can drag the local economy to its feet, rather than just provide a boost from initial construction.

Wheeler County Judge Jeanne Burch is spearheading an effort to create a regionwide Paleo Project to revitalize Wheeler, Wasco, Sherman and Gilliam counties.

The plan calls for developing and integrating tourism industries like bed and breakfasts and restaurants joint marketing efforts, and creating a multiple-use education and science facility in the town of Fossil.

Wheeler County received $75,000 from the U.S. Forest Service and the state Community Response Fund to conduct a regional development plan for the Paleo Project, said Lyn Craig, a community and economic adviser for the county.

Work on the plan began Aug. 6 and is projected to last a year. State agencies are also cooperating on the Paleo Project, endorsed by Gov. John Kitzhaber in April as an effort that supports the economy, community and environment simultaneously.

The focal point is the Fossil paleo center, which is designed to complement the proposed center at the fossil beds. Organizers hope to renovate and expand the current high school, move elementary students into that facility and convert the current elementary school into a multi-use facility with classrooms, a laboratory, and tour-group lodging and dining facilities.

The Fossil center, estimated by Craig at $2 million, would also integrate wireless Internet technology from a rural education network currently being constructed to hold two-way audio-video classes with students across the state or around the world.

What were trying to do is leverage off of every investment out there so there are other benefactors in the area, said Peter Dobert, a consultant on the project. But this is not just how do you get a lot of tourists in there. Its how do you get good schools, with small class sizes. The other piece is the distance learning capacity allows rural communities to interact with urban communities.

For Doug Pratt, owner of of the Dayville Cafe just east of the proposed fossil beds center, the whole situation seems pretty simple.

If we dont have tourism, there wont be much here, he said. Thats about it.