Docs reveal BLM role in damaged fossil debacle

By Scott Streater | 08/17/2022 01:46 PM EDT

Emails show that BLM staffers failed to protect more than 200 fossil tracks dating back millions of years during a maintenance project at Utah’s Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite.

Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite

A photo taken in 2017 of the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite in Utah, where more than 200 tracks of dinosaurs have been preserved. Wayne Hsieh/Flickr

This story was updated at 4:41 p.m. EDT.

A trove of internal documents provide new details into how the Bureau of Land Management allowed ancient fossil beds to be permanently damaged during a routine boardwalk replacement project at Utah’s Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite.

BLM did not implement required safeguards to protect the more than 200 fossil tracks dating back millions of years to the early Cretaceous time period, according to the documents, obtained via the Freedom of Information Act by the Center for Biological Diversity and shared with E&E News.


Chief among them was BLM’s failure to mark with flags the areas containing fossil tracks — as required by an October 2021 environmental assessment (EA) — so that crews tearing down and replacing the old wooden boardwalk would know not to drive or walk over the tracks, some of which are covered with sand and silt and not easily visible.

BLM’s Canyon Country District did not have a paleontologist on staff and instead assigned Jennifer Whittington — the Moab Field Office assistant manager and a geologist by training who is described in the documents as having “familiarity of the resources” at the site — to oversee protection of the dinosaur footprints and other natural resources, according to the documents.

But Whittington, who took on the role of paleontological coordinator for the project, was not at the Mill Canyon site to supervise on Jan. 26 when crews began to remove the old wooden boardwalk and set up a staging area for heavy equipment, the records show.

The records also reveal that within a couple days of work beginning, BLM knew that its crews had driven over some fossil tracks and had parked a backhoe atop what would later be revealed as an “important theropod” print.

Phil Gensler, a regional BLM paleontologist based in Santa Fe, N.M., alerted Whittington of the possible damage to the tracks via emailed photos and a video — redacted in the records BLM submitted — of the ongoing work at the site on Jan. 28.

One of the photos he emailed to Whittington showed fresh tracks that appeared to have been made by a backhoe, which is pictured sitting past a sign that reads, “Restoration Area, please suspend travel.”

Whittington forwarded Gensler’s email that same day to her supervisors: Marie McGann, listed as the acting assistant Canyon Country district manager, and then-Moab Field Office Manager Nicollee Gaddis-Wyatt.

Whittington wrote in the email to McGann and Gaddis-Wyatt that the tire tracks appeared to have been made by heavy equipment associated with the boardwalk replacement project, and that the tire tracks were “on top of a dinosaur track.” That highlighted the fact the dinosaur tracks had not been marked with flags, as required in the EA.

As Whittington explained in the email, “The dinosaur tracks are hard to discern from the surrounding rocks and can be inadvertently trampled.”

When the photos were later emailed on Jan. 28 to David Pals, BLM’s assistant field manager of the resources division in Moab, Utah, he appeared surprised in a follow-up email to Gaddis-Wyatt that Whittington wasn’t at the site to ensure that the tracks were marked and protected.

“Jennifer said she was supposed to be on the site prior to them moving equipment in,” Pals wrote.

Whittington also forwarded the photos to Brent Breithaupt, a BLM paleontologist in Cheyenne, Wyo., who called them “very disconcerting” in a Jan. 28 email to Whittington.

Breithaupt noted in the email that the EA required the fossil tracks to be carefully marked with flags, and that a “BLM representative” was supposed to be on-site to supervise the work.

“Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the numerous, varied tracks and trackways proximate to the walkway have been flagged; and it is clear that tracks have already been impacted,” he wrote. “In addition since you are not there, I’m not certain that there are any BLM representatives onsite to monitor activities.”

He added, “It is apparent that the requirements of the EA are not being followed for this project.”

BLM did not respond to a list of questions and a request for comment submitted by E&E News.

BLM Utah Director Greg Sheehan, in a Feb. 1 “Information/Briefing Memorandum” prepared for BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning, wrote that “Moab Field Office conducted a preconstruction survey, which included an archeologist walking the project to clear the area where construction would occur.”

But the records suggest BLM did not follow through on the protocols it evaluated in the EA and committed to in the decision record authorizing the boardwalk project — funded with $350,000 from the Great American Outdoors Act’s Legacy Restoration Fund for the current fiscal budget cycle.

Most of the internal discussion outlined in the documents took place days before visitors to the site began posting photos of the clearly visible damage to the fossil tracks on social media, igniting a firestorm of criticism from the public, elected leaders and members of the paleontological community.

By Jan. 31, CBD had submitted a cease-and-desist letter to BLM demanding the project stop.

BLM later announced it halted the project, and that Breithaupt would travel to the site and conduct damage assessment.

“Well, this has blown up on social media,” Breithaupt wrote in a Jan. 31 email to Whittington and Gensler.

“Professional paleontologists (many our permittees) are livid, including the State Paleontologist for Utah (who made a special trip to the site Sunday), and some of the world’s leading dinosaur track researchers,” he wrote.

He added: “Unfortunately, it appears that policy and procedures may not have been followed and important paleontological resources have been irreparably damaged. In addition, BLM’s reputation on paleontological resource management is also suffering.”

Breithaupt’s eventual damage assessment released to the public in late March concluded the overall “damage to the tracks and traces as the result of impacts from construction activities appears minor,” though likely cannot be fixed (E&E News PM, March 30).

But the damage assessment also pointed to BLM oversight problems, such as failing to mark the fossil tracks with flags. It also found that sections of the old wooden boardwalk that were removed by work crews, beginning Jan. 26, and carried by foot to an area north of the boardwalk “were stacked on top of an already fragmented exposure of the track-bearing surface.”

While most of the damage caused by the construction crews did not appear to have occurred at the main “interpretation area,” where some of the oldest of the more than 200 tracks dating back millions of years are located, there are fossil tracks east and north of the boardwalk that were heavily impacted by the backhoe and other vehicles.

The damage assessment recommended finishing building the new boardwalk, which it said would help keep visitors from straying onto the tracks.

But it also recommended “that the project be reevaluated with regard to its impact to paleontological resources.”

BLM began that process in June, releasing a draft EA outlining a new plan that it said would carefully mark dinosaur tracks and other paleontological resources for work crews that would only be allowed to proceed under the oversight of a BLM or contracted paleontologist (E&E News PM, June 24).

The draft EA states that access by construction crews to the site “would be established and marked for access by a BLM Paleontologist and would be the sole access route allowed during construction.”

Alan Titus, a paleontologist in BLM Utah’s Paria River District office, visited the site in April and marked the access pathway, according to the draft EA.

BLM has since finalized the EA and expects to implement a revised boardwalk replacement project plan by the end of this month.

The internal documents show it’s uncertain that BLM can finish the boardwalk project and protect the resources at the site, said Patrick Donnelly, CBD’s Great Basin director.

“These records show a disturbing lack of accountability and follow-through at BLM,” Donnelly said. “They wrote a shoddy [EA] document, they failed to obtain public input, and then they didn’t even implement on the meager resource protection measures they had committed to.”

He added, “We need BLM to do better.”

Where were the paleontologists?

Among the biggest questions raised in the internal documents is why BLM did not include paleontologists in the planning and execution of the boardwalk replacement project.

It’s not clear from the records whether the BLM regional paleontologists — Breithaupt in Wyoming and Gensler in New Mexico — had even been consulted until shortly before, or after the work began.

Breithaupt appeared to indicate in a Jan. 27 email to Whittington that he had just read the EA, and that he thought “it would have been best to have had a BLM paleontologist formally review this document earlier (because of the fragile nature and scientific sensitivity of the tracks at this site).”

The records show that the state of Utah’s paleontologist and other researchers who had worked at the site were completely unaware of the boardwalk project.

That included Martin Lockley, a retired University of Colorado at Denver geologist and a world-renowned expert on trace fossils, like the ones found at the Mill Canyon site.

Lockley was the lead researcher at the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite from the time the fossil tracks were first revealed to BLM in 2009, through 2013, when Lockley worked with an international team of experts and BLM officials to map out the tracks for the first time using photogrammetry.

But Lockley wrote in a Jan. 26 email to Whittington and other BLM and state officials that he had just been told about the boardwalk project “by two professional paleontologists” who forwarded him the EA and decision record approving the project.

“Their concern, which I share, is that paleontologists who studied the site have apparently not been consulted,” Lockley wrote.

Lockley wrote a series of terse, but polite, follow-up emails to state and BLM officials, including Whittington, the next day bemoaning poor communication by the bureau with paleontology experts, not just at Mill Canyon but also in general.

In the emails, he wrote that he was speaking out on behalf of his “paleontologist colleagues” who “could not speak out publicly due to constraints imposed by the agencies or the organizations they work for.”

His colleagues did so “because they are genuinely concerned about the paleontological resources at the site because they have invested time and effort themselves and would like to be seen as partners. This is important for agencies to realize,” he wrote in a Jan. 27 email to BLM and state officials.

In a Feb. 1 email to the same officials, he wrote that their desire “is for two way communication and involvement of the professional paleontological community in decisions of the type that were undertaken in initiating the ‘work’ at the Mill Canyon site.”

James Kirkland, Utah’s state paleontologist, and his boss, Bill Keach, director of the Utah Geological Survey, struck a similar tone.

Keach, in a Jan. 27 email to Sheehan, the BLM Utah director, wrote that Kirkland had earlier that day told him he had “some serious concerns about proposed work at the Mill Canyon,” and that “a qualified paleontologist … needs to be on site during all destruction & construction” of the new boardwalk — apparently not aware that the work began a day earlier.

Keach also noted that Kirkland “has questions about the process to approve” the boardwalk project.

“In a broader context, is there a way we can work more closely on paleo work in the future?” Keach wrote.

Perhaps ironically, after the damage occurred at the Mill Canyon site, a paleontologist — Lee Shenton, president of the Utah Friends of Paleontology’s Moab chapter — visited the site and consulted with BLM, according to the Feb. 1 briefing memorandum Sheehan sent to Stone-Manning.

“Mr. Shenton offered assistance of local experts and confirmed his desire to work together in the future,” Sheehan wrote.

Damage control

By Jan. 31, as news of the damage became public, BLM press officials worked to respond to a flurry of inquiries from reporters from local and state newspapers and television stations, The New York Times, and National Geographic.

A large chunk of the roughly 450 or so pages of FOIA documents are dominated by emails, memos and other exchanges between BLM’s communications staffers and other bureau leaders in the immediate hours after the damage was discovered, and concerns about what to tell the public about the damage and the bureau’s role in it.

Some of BLM’s concerns were based on the social media posts on Jan. 30 and 31 of the damage at the site, with one post estimating as much as one-third of fossil tracks could be damaged with what appeared to be heavy equipment running over them.

The impact, as the damage assessment would later confirm, was much less.

BLM’s Utah office was also fielding inquiries about the issue from congressional leaders, including Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, as well as state, regional and local paleontological experts.

“Senator Lee’s office has apparently been receiving calls and the Senator received a call on his personal phone,” Rachel Wooten, a BLM Utah spokesperson wrote in a Jan. 31 email to then-Canyon Country District Manager Gary Torres, McGann and Gaddis-Wyatt.

BLM prepared the Feb. 1 information/briefing memorandum sent to Stone-Manning, and on Feb. 8 it was also sent to the Interior Department’s deputy secretary.

Among the “next steps” outlined in that memo was the plan for a damage assessment, and a commitment that when work on the project resumed in the future, “we will ensure exposed trackways near the walkway construction will be marked and flagged for avoidance, per the environmental assessment and associated decision.”

BLM also prepared a “talking points” sheet for bureau officials when discussing the Mill Canyon damage with news media and members of the public.

It says, “While the Canyon Country District does not have a paleontologist on staff, we have experts who help inform decisions. A member of the local leadership team who is also a geologist will be onsite during the work.”

A couple of days later, Rosemarie Spano, BLM’s GAOA program manager in Washington, noted the attention the situation had received in an email to a colleague.

“Apparently we have struck a nerve with some of our stakeholders so we will have to be very careful moving forward, because there will be extra scrutiny,” Spano wrote in a Feb. 2 email to Jeff Rich, BLM’s state engineer in Salt Lake City.

Spano then pitched a request to Rich, who forwarded her email to officials in the BLM Canyon Country District. It concerned the fact that the boardwalk project was funded through the GAOA, approved by Congress in 2020 to, among other things, help federal agencies address maintenance project backlogs.

“Will you please encourage the District and Moab office to refrain from talking about the funding source if at all possible,” Spano wrote. “So far this has not been publicized as a GAOA disaster, and we would prefer to keep it that way.”