Randy Irmis rubbed his fingers over bumpy imprints of the scaly skin of a creature that lived 76 million years ago, once roaming what is now Utah’s Kaiparowits Plateau.
Dinosaur skin is a rare find, the Natural History Museum of Utah paleontologist says, but not in that desolate corner of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Conditions for fossilizing remains of dinosaurs and many other animals were so good in the region, says Irmis, that at least half the duck-billed dinosaur specimens recovered there have skin.
“With so many skin impressions, we have been able to tell species’ specific features from their skin,” he said recently while touring the Salt Lake City museum’s collections, which house 2,000 fossils recovered from the Kaiparowits since the monument was designated in 1996.
Those intervening two decades have seen a flood of scientific discoveries pour out of the remote high desert plateau, which also harbors a fossil bounty of another kind — vast reserves of coal.
Scientists now fear that President Donald Trump’s order last week to downsize Grand Staircase — freeing some of those fuel reserves for potential development — could also imperil one of the world’s richest paleontological areas, holding the keys to understanding life’s evolution at a critical period in Earth’s history. Some of these researchers are now suing in federal court to halt the move
A 1,650 square-mile triangle bounded by the Straight Cliffs on the east and the Cockscomb on the west, the Kaiparowits contains an unbroken fossil record spanning about 25 million years of the Late Cretaceous, from 100 million to 75 million years ago — an era when ecosystems first emerged that we would recognize today, filled with flowering plants and familiar backboned animals like lizards, snakes, amphibians, turtles and mammals.
“It has really transformed how we understand the Late Cretaceous and its extinction events and what happened after the extinction events,” says David Polly, president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.
On Monday, Trump flew to Utah and signed proclamations breaking the once 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument into two monuments, totaling 201,876 acres. He also trimmed the Grand Staircase-Escalante from 1.9 million acres to about 1 million, segmenting it into three smaller monuments, including a new Kaiparowits National Monument covering 551,034 acres.
The redrawn Kaiparowits preserve resembles a jigsaw puzzle piece with large areas carved out. Maps reveal that some of those carve-outs, such as Alvey Wash, overlap with mineable coal seams and old mineral leases. According to analyses by the environmental group Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and others, retired oil and gas leases on the plateau also match up neatly with areas excised from the monument by Trump’s decree.
The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology — a global organization of scientists, students, artists, writers and other scholars dedicated to the discovery, study and preservation of vertebrate fossils — has joined Conservation Lands Foundation and Grand Staircase Escalante Partners in a federal lawsuit aimed at blocking the Interior Department from cutting the monument by half.
Their legal challenge was one of five filed as of Friday against the Utah monument reductions.
“In the areas being excluded from these monuments are scientifically important paleontological resources,” says Polly, also a geology professor at Indiana University. “Members of our society have chosen to work there because of their uniqueness and because of the protections that the monument has provided for them, which are guarantees of the longevity and preservation of those sites which is not guaranteed on ordinary federal lands.”
While other protections still apply to the excluded acreages, if they are now opened to multiple uses, as envisioned by Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Polly said, “mining can easily take precedence.”
Fossils are not a resource whose extraction can generate jobs and economic activity the way fossil fuels and other mineral resources can. President Bill Clinton’s surprise monument proclamation in 1996 stung southern Utah’s Kane and Garfield counties, whose leaders deeply resented the subsequent loss of two proposed coal mines and the jobs they promised.
Under the Kaiparowits are massive deposits of high-quality coal that account for about two-thirds of Utah’s known reserves. About 22 billion tons lies in mineable seams, at least four feet thick, and about half that is deemed “recoverable,” according to the Utah Geological Survey.
The coal is located in the Straight Cliffs Formation, deposited between 95 million and 80 million years ago and is immediately below the sedimentary formations — Kaiparowits and Wahweap — that are yielding headline-grabbing dinosaur discoveries.
The minable coal deposits tend to be on the east side of the Smoky Mountain Road that traverses the plateau north to south, connecting the rural communities of Escalante and Big Water. One state official insists that separation makes the potential threat to fossil treasures from coal mining relatively small.
“These things aren’t in the same place. The coal is east and the dinosaurs are west,” says paleontologist Jim Kirkland of the Utah Geological Survey. “The mines aren’t going to affect the dinosaur stuff very much.”
The Kaiparowits coal beds formed in coastal mangrove and cypress swamps, where plant material was preserved and later fossilized into the black rock rich in carbon. Vertebrate fossils are not often found in coal deposits because the swamps filled with decaying plants were so acidic that conditions eroded bones away before they could fossilize, according to Kirkland.
But Irmis, with the Natural History Museum of Utah, is not convinced. Coal-rich portions of the Kaiparowits have not been scoured for fossils yet, he noted, and the fraction of the plateau already surveyed has yielded thousands of specimens.
Paleontologists have identified 964 sites on the plateau that have so far produced 2,000 specimens now in the museum’s collections. Other museums working the Kaiparowits include the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and California’s Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology.
The redrawn monument boundaries also worry Utah paleontologist Jeff Eaton, a mammals specialist who conducted some of the first research on the plateau with his wife, Linda, in the 1980s. The Eatons are credited with initially alerting the Clinton administration to the Kaiparowits’ scientific values, then under threat from the proposed Andalex coal mine at Smoky Hollow.
Portions of Eaton’s writings on the plateau’s scientific importance were, in fact, included in Clinton’s 1996 proclamation designating Grand Staircase as a national monument.
“That is the essential core of the monument. That is where the fossils come from,” Eaton told The Salt Lake Tribune before Trump’s visit. “This is nonsense to remove the Kaiparowits Plateau from monument designation.”
He considers the beautiful landscapes on either side — the Escalante Canyons to the northeast and the Grand Staircase to the west — to be “add-ons” to the monument, better known for their scenic qualities than their scientific resources.
Coal industry supporters say the Kaiparowits reserves lie hundreds of feet below and would be mined using underground longwall operations that would not disturb the surface except at key points of entry. But environmentalists reject that assertion and note that mining isn’t the only threat to the area; Trump’s decision also opens it to potential oil and gas drilling.
“If something like fracking was done,” Polly says, “that will not only fragment the fossils along with the shale, it will also change geochemical signals in the rock.”
Others note the value to science of protecting places where fossils have been excavated.
“The importance is not just the fossil itself but the context,” Irmis says. “The fact that I can go to sites that were excavated 10 or 50 years ago makes a big difference in discovering new information. There are new techniques we could apply that we couldn’t when the fossil was excavated. It happens all the time.”
Given the declining interest in coal and the remoteness the Kaiparowits deposits, many say it is unlikely they would be tapped anytime soon — but the possibility still has scientists on edge.
“Once there is coal mining, once there are coal roads, everything environmentally is downhill,” Eaton says. “The saddest part is the destruction of the landscape. There is no one in the U.S. to use that coal. That coal is used to sell to China. We are giving up marvelous research for a few bucks.”