Lawmaker seeking $10M for a new Utahraptor State Park

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Surrounded by Utahraptor fossils and models at the Utah Capitol on Friday, Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus, center, describes her town's enthusiasm for a proposed state park honoring the famous predatory dinosaur that stalked Grand County 135 million years ago. Niehaus is flanked by Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Brian Steed, right, and Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy. Eliason is seeking a $10 million appropriation to establish Utahraptor State Park on 6,500 acres surrounding the Dalton Wells Dinosaur Quarry just outside Arches National Park.

The proposed Utahraptor State Park came into sharper focus Friday at the Legislature, where officials unveiled a $10 million plan to turn 6,500 state-owned acres surrounding a famed, but neglected, Grand County dinosaur quarry into a well-managed destination with trails, interpretive sites and a campground at a second entrance to Arches National Park.

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, this week introduced HB322, which would direct the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation to manage Dalton Wells, just west of Arches and 15 miles north of Moab on U.S. Highway 191, for public recreation and to preserve a quarry that is getting looted as the area becomes more popular for dispersed camping.

“This park has a combination of all the things you want to see in a state park for recreation opportunities,” Eliason said at an announcement that included locally elected leaders and key members of Gov. Gary Herbert’s administration. “There are many miles of ATV and motorcycle trails, many miles of existing bike trails and mountain bike trails, that crisscross the property.”

The $10 million appropriation, which is not in the governor’s proposed budget, would build roads, trails, water, power and sewer lines, an entrance station, office, restrooms, campground, day-use areas and parking.

“One of the highlights would be the quarry where we could have interpretive trails and displays and the opportunity for people to see, up close and personal, exhibits similar to what we have in Dinosaur National Monument,” said Eliason, who was sporting a blue tie featuring images of dinosaurs. “We believe, going forward, that revenue from entrance receipts would be sufficient to maintain the park.”

He and State Parks Director Jeff Rasmussen left the unveiling Friday to pitch the park to the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee, whose members spoke approvingly of the idea. Rasmussen explained how a new park would help relieve the pressure on nearby national and state parks, whose visitation has exploded in recent years.

“Southeast Utah is getting pounded with visitors that they don’t have the resources to be able to accommodate. This state park gives us the opportunity to provide more of those opportunities,” Rasmussen said. “There’s a lot of recreation going on at this site today, and it’s creating a lot of problems with resource damage, trash and human waste. Representative Eliason spoke about ‘Charmin lilies,’ if you know what those are [a mix of toilet paper and human waste]. You don’t want them growing in your yard.”

Not included in the proposal was a museum, which would be expensive to build and operate, yet desperately needed to keep fossils recovered in Grand County from leaving the area for properly equipped repositories.

In the past decade, State Parks has embraced an ethos of financial self-sufficiency, which has led to a big investment in the kinds of facilities that make money, such as campgrounds, marinas, boat ramps, yurts and zip lines, at Utah’s 44 state parks.

Resource protection and interpretive services, two key elements of the proposed 45th park, generally require more money than entrance fees alone would cover.

The quarry sits on a horseshoe-shaped 4,200-acre parcel of “sovereign land,” acquired by Utah in exchange for state holdings lost to Canyonlands and Arches national parks decades ago. The entire parcel would be included in the park along with a 2,300-acre chunk of state trust land. The Department of Natural Resources has been negotiating with the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration to acquire those lands, which form the interior of the horseshoe, according to department Executive Director Brian Steed.

The park would be located on the southern end of what’s called the Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Highway, a 480-mile loop passing through various paleontological sites in Utah and Colorado. Dalton Wells should be considered the crown jewel of this network, argues State Paleontologist Jim Kirkland.

(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.

Since Utahraptor’s discovery 27 years ago, about 100 specimens have been recovered in Grand County, which exemplifies the astonishing diversity of dinosaurs found in Utah. The proposed park and other nearby sites have yielded thousands of bones with thousands more still to be recovered.

“Utah has the best record of dinosaurs of any state in the nation, and more dinosaur species than any country in the world except perhaps China,” Kirkland said. In the mid-1990s, Utahraptor became Utah’s 22nd named dinosaur species and was officially designated state dinosaur in 2018.

“Now we’re pretty close to 120 [named species]. We can easily go over 200. We have whole faunas that we know about, and we haven’t touched yet, because there’s only so much you can do in a lifetime. There are many lifetimes of work,” Kirkland said. “There’s over 50 dinosaur species in Grand County that we know of, 30 of which have been found nowhere else in the world. It’s a very, very rich place for dinosaurs.”