Will this be the year for a Utahraptor State Park?

A state bill would preserve historical and paleontological treasures in Grand County.

(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.

History buffs and dinosaur lovers are making another push to establish Utahraptor State Park in Grand County, on a fossil-rich tract of land that’s currently suffering from overuse and vandalism.

Rep. Steve Eliason’s previous attempt to create the park in honor of Utah’s official dinosaur fizzled last year, largely because of its $10 million price tag. But he’s not giving up on the idea — and in fact, he’s expanding on it this session by promoting a two-for-one bill that would create Utahraptor State Park and a second new park around a Morgan County reservoir.

“It’s hard to say that it’s a generational opportunity. It’s more of a once-in-a-lifetime type of opportunity,” Eliason, R-Sandy, told fellow lawmakers Thursday during a House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee hearing. “As you know, they’re not making any more land. And there’s extremely few opportunities where the state owns significant parcels of land that are suitable for a state park.”

The first proposed park would be located about 15 miles north of Moab and would protect the Dalton Wells Quarry, which yielded the first fossils of Utahraptor and many other species unique to Grand County. The second would be called Lost Creek State Park and would cover Lost Creek Reservoir, an area that people currently visit for fishing and boating.

“I hope that with this we can help make it a safer place, a place that more people can come,” said Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, whose district includes the reservoir. “Something that generates money to continue its own proper growth.”

House committee members applauded the bill’s goals and voted in support of it but cautioned that lawmakers will have to decide later in session if they want to commit millions of dollars for the parks.

Legislative analysts estimate that acquiring and developing Utahraptor State Park would cost nearly $26 million, and they haven’t yet figured out how much the state would have to spend to create Lost Creek State Park.

If state leaders do fund Eliason’s bill, the new Utahraptor State Park could span about 6,500 acres and feature trails for biking and hiking and campgrounds, he said.

Lee Shenton, representing Utah Friends of Paleontology, said the Dalton Wells Quarry has yielded fossils of 13 new species in recent decades. Unfortunately, group members who have monitored the quarry have noticed repeated vandalism at the sensitive site, and Shenton said he hopes turning the area into a park will safeguard it while enabling more people to enjoy its treasures.

“We would especially like to see not only that these paleontology resources get protected and preserved, but that there is an opportunity to provide some sort of display in the future that can show these many very significant fossils that were found here,” he said.

The area is also 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.

Park tourism could boost the local economy in the area, public commenters said, and improved bathroom and campsite facilities would help cut down on the waste problems that have cropped up near the quarry, as its popularity has increased.

Grand County Commissioner Jacques Hadler said he’s mountain biked and hiked the trails in the area and can attest to the urgent need for protection. Campsites have proliferated across the desert, and “lots of native vegetation has been burned up in huge campfire rings, which you’ll see everywhere, scarring the land,” he said.

“Grand County doesn’t have the resources to protect this awesome area,” he added. “I think that it would fit beautifully within the Utah state park system. ... I think that would quickly become a crown jewel in the Utah state park system.”

Eliason said preserving this state-owned site could also demonstrate that Utah is a good steward of its public spaces, potentially boosting its argument for assuming greater control of the federal lands within its borders.

Now that the bill has passed out of committee, it will move to the full House for consideration.