Proposed state park would pay tribute to Utah’s dinosaurs

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Mary Beth Bennis-Smith, left, and Heather Finlayson with the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum in Vernal, Utah, take their 14-foot Utahraptor for a walk inside the Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2009. The 135-million-year old dinosaur will be the namesake for a proposed state park for Dalton Wells, a quarry outside Moab that yielded the first Utahraptor specimens.

Utah soon may have a park that pays tribute to one of the state’s most notorious killers.

Relax, though, this fleet-footed slasher hasn’t been around for millions of years.

But Utahraptor State Park soon could be born, under a proposal expected to be unveiled this week.

It would become Utah’s 45th state park, designed to protect the Dalton Wells Quarry, which yielded the first fossils of Utahraptor, Utah’s official dinosaur, and many other species unique to Grand County.

Located about 15 miles north of Moab in a part of the state where there are few developed destinations celebrating Utah’s rich fossil record, Dalton Wells has since fallen into neglect and now gets more attention from vandals than from paleontologists. The park proposal, the subject of legislation filed last week as an unnumbered bill, enjoys the full support of Grand County leaders, who have long looked for ways to safeguard the quarry and surrounding state-owned lands in the face of relentless vandalism and unregulated recreational use.

“Creating a state park will accomplish Grand County’s goals by protecting this valuable area while maintaining recreational opportunities,” the council wrote in a Feb. 4 letter to Gov. Gary Herbert. “We look forward to working with the state of Utah to bring this state park to fruition.”

State Paleontologist Jim Kirkland considers Dalton Wells the most important dinosaur site in the United States because of its massive deposits of dinosaur bones from at least 10 species found nowhere else in North America.

“It’s a gold mine of new dinosaurs. There are 30 that we know are only in Moab Valley,” Kirkland said. “Dalton Wells has more kinds of dinosaurs than Dinosaur National Monument” in northeastern Utah.

The size and shape of the park — and what amenities it would host — have yet to be determined. The land, sandwiched between U.S. Highway 191 and Arches National Park, is crisscrossed with motorized and mountain bike trails and is heavily used for dispersed camping. Consequently, the area has become a breeding ground for “Charmin’s lily,” a truly noxious and invasive species comprised of toilet paper and human excrement.

It also is the site of a historic Civilian Conservation Corps work camp that served as the Moab Isolation Center, a facility for “relocating” Japanese-American internees during World War II.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kenyon Roberts, 10 from Draper, holds a photograph of a Utahraptor on display at BYU, during testimony in front of the Senate Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City Friday February 2, 2018. S.B. 43 the State Dinosaur Amendment is looking to make the State dinosaur the Utahraptor.

At a legislative hearing three years ago, then-State Parks Director Fred Hayes put Dalton Wells at the top of his wish list for future and expanded state parks on land administered by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.

“It has a whole variety of things that would make it a phenomenal park area,” said Hayes, who died in 2018. His successor, Jeff Rasmussen, deferred queries about the newly planned state park to the Department of Natural Resources.

“We’re very early in the process. The divisions of Parks and Recreation; Forestry, Fire and State Lands; and the Utah Geological Survey are exploring possibilities, and discussing scenarios with other landowners like SITLA,” DNR spokesman Nathan Schwebach said. “As tourism in Utah expands, more recreation facilities are needed, particularly in southeastern Utah. The Dalton Wells/Willow Springs area is popular but [needs] infrastructure to support the demand. With some planning, we can better care for the area while maintaining its recreational value.”

Southern Utah abounds in fossils spanning much of dinosaurs’ 185-million-year existence, but it lacks much in the way of interpretive destinations for those interested in paleontology.

The top sites are the Bureau of Land Management’s newly designated Jurassic National Monument at the Cleveland-Lloyd Quarry in Emery County and the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site.

The sponsor of the legislation calling for a park at Dalton Wells will be Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, a veteran of two previous efforts to designate new state parks, one at San Rafael Swell and another at Little Sahara Sand Dunes. Neither park came to be, most likely because they were proposed on federal land, which would have required complicated land swaps or land-use agreements with the BLM.

Dalton Wells, by contrast, is on a large block of state-owned land that has become ever more popular among those seeking to avoid the crowds at Moab’s usual hot spots. The state block spans Willow Springs Road, once used as Arches’ original entrance, and is just south of Klondike Bluffs, a mountain biking magnet developed on federal land during the past decade. The BLM is planning to put an end to dispersed camping there and designate campsites.

The Dalton Wells Quarry is on a 2,000-acre parcel, shaped like the numeral 7, overseen by the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, surrounded by land held by SITLA. Neither agency is equipped to run a park. Some trust lands would need to be incorporated into the park, but SITLA, by law, cannot give away its holdings, even for the most laudable uses. The agency, which manages lands to raise money for public education, would have to be fairly compensated.

To that end, state officials are busy identifying state sovereign lands elsewhere in Grand County that can be traded for trust lands near the dinosaur quarry, according to SITLA Director David Ure.

“We are trying to make the trade to make this park possible. We are working with our sister agencies to determine what is beneficial for them and is beneficial for us,” Ure said. “There are some grounds that they have that are important to us. We think the majority would be within a 10-mile radius. That’s as close as I can tell you until we have the appraisals.”

Dalton Wells is one of three quarries rimming Arches — the others are Gaston and Stikes — that have produced countless pieces of Utahraptor, a small feathered predator that hunted in packs, as well as many other dinosaur species.

The fossils, found in the lower reaches of the Cedar Mountain Formation, date to 125 million to 135 million years ago, marking the early Cretaceous Period. Brigham Young University has conducted most of the groundbreaking excavations at Dalton Wells and some of the bones are housed in its collections in Provo, but many others have left the state.

The site has not been actively excavated for authorized science in several years. As the area between Klondike Bluffs and Willow Springs becomes more popular for recreation, more people are clambering around the Dalton Wells Quarry in search of souvenirs.

"It's a famous site," Kirkland said. "People go up and dig scratch holes. They are curious. They aren't looking to get rich on the black market."

Some have proposed covering the quarry with chain-link fences and burying it to keep the fossils safe, but Kirkland fears such a move would discourage future study and public enjoyment.

“Our communities should see long-term benefits from these resources," Kirkland said, “and long-term benefit for a scientist is interpretation.”