Robert Gehrke: Utah is home to the richest deposits of dinosaurs on the planet, and now they will be protected

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) State Sen. Jani Iwamoto, center, and Utah Paleontologist Jim Kirkland tour the site of the new Utahraptor State Park. Iwamoto was the co-sponsor of the legislation creating the park, which contains the largest array of dinosaur species on the planet. It is also the site of a World War II Japanese isolation camp that will be memorialized within the park.

It doesn’t look like much: A simple dirt road branching into a dusty basin, criss-crossed by tire tracks, ringed by an unimpressive ridgeline.

But when Jim Kirkland talks about what’s in that plateau and the surrounding Cedar Mountain formation, his eyes light up.

“This formation has more dinosaurs species than any other formation on the planet,” Kirkland, the Utah state paleontologist, told me last week as we walked along a rocky trail up to the rocky outcropping. “We’ve only known this recently.”

The same geology that makes the formations in Arches National Park possible has created a trove of Cretaceous era fossils, dating back 110 million years at the upper levels and going back millions more buried deep.

The Dalton-Wells Quarry, the centerpiece of Utah’s new Utahraptor State Park, is named for the location where scientists uncovered the first fragments of the famed dinosaur — the actual star of the movie Jurassic Park, not the velociraptor, which was only about the size of a turkey.

But researchers have been pulling dinosaurs out of the ridge for decades — the birdlike ornithomimidae; at least four of the squat, armored gastonia; a minimum of eight more Utahraptors; and 18 partial skulls of the massive, long-necked, aptly named Moabosaurus.

And they’re just scratching the surface.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) One of many three- toed tracks made about 165 million years ago by a human- sized predator dinosaur named a Therapod is preserved in stone along Willow Springs Road near the former entrance to Arches National Park outside of Moab, Utah. On March 11, state legislators passed a bill to create Utahraptor State Park that will be adjacent to Arches and cover 6,500 acres of land. A former Japanese American concentration camp in the area will be memorialized within the park.

“The site is so much bigger. They figure maybe 10% of the site has been excavated,” Kirkland said. “The very beginning part of the Cretaceous period is recorded there, and it’s recorded nowhere else in North America.”

Pursuit of a park

For decades Grand County officials have been wanting to convert the site into a dinosaur park.

Around 1995, the Utah Legislature gave $15,000 to Grand County to conduct a feasibility study, and the county hired an architect who drew up plans for what Kirkland described as a monument to himself — a tilted version of the Eiffel Tower that was supposed to resemble a brontosaurus neck with an overlook at the top — and they attached a $15 million price tag to the project, more than anyone was willing to pay.

Over the ensuing 25 years, paleontologists have been pulling fossils out of the quarry. Brigham Young University has recovered more than 5,000 specimens alone, Kirkland said.

And, of course, there were scavengers, who would cart away whatever the could from the site that might be worth something — technically a felony, but almost impossible to enforce.

The looting didn’t sit well with Kenyon Roberts. Back in 2017, the 10-year-old dinosaur aficionado convinced Sen. Curt Bramble, a friend of the family, to sponsor legislation to change the official state fossil from the Allosaurus to the Utahraptor.

(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.

In the process he got to know Kirkland and go see a few digs, brushing off bones and watching them pull out the remains of an ankylosaur. He also saw some of the damage done by the robbers, and asked what could be done to protect them.

“Yeah, it’s cool when your kid plays a sport, but when your kid wants to preserve nature, that’s a proud dad moment,” said Kenyon’s father, Jeremy Roberts, who asked Rep. Steve Eliason and Sen. Jani Iwamoto to sponsor the bill designating the state park.

The proposal didn’t make it in the 2020 session, but was approved earlier this year and lawmakers allocated $30 million for the Utahraptor park and another new state park at Lost Creek Reservoir. Last Wednesday, Gov. Spencer Cox held a ceremonial signing for the legislation and gave Kenyon a copy of the bill and the pen he used to sign it, which Kenyon said he plans to frame and keep as a reminder of the effort.

A darker history

Dinosaur bones aren’t the only history at the site.

As you drive up then dirt road toward the quarry, you go past the remnants of the gate that once was an entrance to a Civilian Conservation Corps camp for workers who built the roads and structures in nearby Arches. But during World War II it was turned into a Japanese concentration camp — one few Utahns know about.

There’s barely a trace of the site left — just some concrete pads and pile of bricks on the corner of one pad, overgrown with bushes.

After guards shot into a crowd of unarmed Japanese internees at the Manzanar Camp in California in 1942, the War Relocation Authority moved 16 supposed troublemakers to the temporary isolation facility.

(Utah Division of State History) This archive photo shows a Civilian Conservation Corps camp north of Moab that was converted to a Japanese isolation center during World War II. Few traces of the camp remain today, but the history of the site will be highlighted as part of the new Utahraptor State Park.

“The point of bringing them here is these were people who were saying, ‘Hey, you guys are stealing our food. Hey, what about our civil rights?’” According to Claudia Katayanagi, who directed “A Bitter Legacy,” a documentary about the Japanese camps, and visited the site with us. “Anybody who started to resist, they wanted to get rid of them so they didn’t incite other people.”

While it only operated for about six months, at its peak there were about 50 people confined there, kept under tight supervision of armed guards.

“In a sense Moab became a symbol of controlling the inmates,” Katayanagi told me. “When they brought men here there were four guards to every person. If you wanted to go to the bathroom you had to take a guard with you. In this camp you have to speak English, you could not speak Japanese.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Claudia Katayanagi, left, who directed and produced the film A Bitter Legacy about Japanese Americans put into isolation camps, is joined by State Sen. Jani Iwamoto as they tour the stark surroundings of a former camp near Dalton Wells Road outside of Moab, Utah. The camp will be memorialized within a new Utahraptor State Park planned for the area.

When the government decided to close the facility, the camp administrator had a 5-foot-by-6-foot box built, put it on the back of a flatbed truck, and drove five of the remaining captives 13 hours to the Leupp Isolation Center at the southern end of the Navajo Nation, not far from Winslow, Ariz.

“It made me very emotional to think how these people were put in those awful places,” Iwamoto told me after we visited the site. The park, though, offers an opportunity to tell part of that dark history. “They’re going to highlight that too, and I think that’s really important,” she said.

Plans for preservation

There is a lot of work to do to put a park here, and that work will fall to state park officials and Megan Blackwelder, now the manager at Dead Horse State Park, who has been tapped to lead Utahraptor State Park.

“She has experience in paleo and she’ll do a great job,” Kirkland said. “I’m so happy she’s going to be in charge of it.”

Naturally, there will be some sort of memorial and interpretive site marking the concentration camp, although what that will look like is unclear.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A few concrete pads are all that remain under the cottonwoods indicating the site of a former Japanese American World War II isolation camp at Dalton Wells Road near Moab, Utah. The camp will be memorialized within a new Utahraptor State Park planned for the area.

The several dozen trailers camped in the valley will have to go. There are plans to install designated campsites, possibly up to 100 of them. There are also discussions about letting visitors access Arches National Park through the state park, entering through the park’s original north entrance.

Kirkland said he would like to see some temporary structures built on top of the quarry where visitors can watch scientists working on their digs. At the very least, he said, the presence of the park will discourage people from vandalizing the remains and trying to make off with bones.

“I really think that Utah geological record is really really unique to the world, the fossil record and it took a lot of people working together to preserve it,” Kenyon Roberts told me. “It’s also really important that we tell the story of what happened to the Japanese there.”

So while it may not look like much now, it’s an exciting prospect — the chance to preserve two important epochs in Utah history, to better manage recreational opportunities, to help the Grand County economy, and hopefully to excite generations of kids about the history and science of the park and the surrounding area.