The Mill Canyon Dinosaur Track Site near Moab is home to more than 200 dinosaur tracks. The footprints that crisscross the rock date back 112 million years and come from at least 10 different prehistoric creatures.
The area is one of the most important early Cretaceous track sites in the world. If you jumped into a time machine, you would find a mudflat where a shallow lake dries up. Seeds of ferns and conifers were growing nearby. Dromaeosaurs, theropods, long-necked herbivorous dinosaurs, and crocodiles roamed the area.
A layer of lime mud and seaweed made a very good surface to capture the footprints. Once the tracks were drawn, more sediment was deposited on top, so that there are tracks superimposed on each other.
The tracks were not made on the same day, but all the fossils are very fragile. Even walking directly on the tracks can damage them, so a boardwalk has been installed to keep visitors to the historic site safe from footprints.
On January 25, 2022, the BLM began the removal of the boardwalk which they believe was out of shape and posed a serious tripping hazard. Its replacement was necessary to protect the slopes and visitors.
However, people were worried once construction started.
Artist Brian Engh and conservationist Jeremey Roberts posted a series of tweets describing the damage they saw.
This feeling when @BLMUtah drives a backhoe to a fragile fossil site that you and a group of incredible paleontologists, paleoartists, and local citizens have put their hearts and souls into excavating, studying, and interpreting for all to enjoy.
The plank walk was a “trip hazard” 🤬 pic.twitter.com/Zh3CLqT1ri
— Brian Engh (@BrianEngh_Art) January 30, 2022
Usually the center works to save living species, said Great Basin Director Patrick Donnelly. But his organization saw this as such an obvious example of the BLM’s misuse of resources that it felt the need to intervene.
“The original environmental assessment was a totally superficial document,” Donnelly said. “They had no expert involvement and the outcome was predictable. It was a disaster.”
The BLM has listened to calls to halt construction. He stopped the project on January 31, after only two days of work, and requested a paleontological evaluation.
After a month of collecting and comparing images, notes, and observations, BLM regional paleontologist Brent H. Breithaupt released that Evaluation.
In his report, Breithaupt concludes that “damage to tracks and tracks resulting from the impacts of construction activities appear to be minor. Unfortunately, little can be done to restore broken or eroded tracks left bare.
He also said small microfractures may have formed due to the weight of machinery on the site, so the natural degradation of the tracks may be accelerated.
The evaluation presents recommendations for the continuation of the project. One of them is asking the public for input, so that’s what the BLM is doing right now.
Nicollee Gaddis-Wyatt, field manager in the BLM’s Moab office, said people were concerned that the access road to the site had track marks and fossils.
“Even though this access road had been used to build the original boardwalk, over the years the land had shifted and more tracks were exposed,” she said.
The BLM has now marked three alternative entry routes and is asking the public for their input.
“We’ve identified what we think the impacts may be,” Gaddis-Wyatt said, “and if there are any other impacts, we’d like to know about them.”
Another recommendation that the BLM follows is to have a paleontology expert on site.
Gaddis-Wyatt said the Canyon County District does not have a paleontologist on staff, so he originally had his geologist come to the trail site and survey the area at the square. The geologist was supposed to flag areas to avoid, but the project started before she could.
“It’s something we’re going to do differently. We’re going to bring in a paleontologist from another district and be there from day one,” Gaddis-Wyatt said.
The public also raised concerns about the concrete being poured at the lane site to build the new boardwalk. Gaddis-Wyatt said concrete will not be poured on the tracks themselves. Instead, an elevated boardwalk will be constructed with a steel footing and a thin layer of concrete on top.
Comments written to give your opinion on this project are open until July 26. The BLM hopes to reopen the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite to the public in the fall.