a controversy brewing over dinosaurs, but it has nothing to
do with their extinction. This time the debate is over the extinction
of the scientists who study dinosaur fossils at the Dinosaur National
Monument on the Colorado-Utah border.
Park Superintendent Chas Cartwright announced that
the paleontology positions at the Dinosaur National Monument would
be outsourced as part of a position management plan that became
effective October 1 — Cartwright's response to a request from the
National Park Service "to develop a long-term plan for staffing
that would provide the maximum amount of resource protection and
visitor services in the most cost-effective manner possible," according
to a letter circulated by Cartwright.
Dinosaur National Monument is considered by many to
be the world's premier dinosaur research center.
The position management plan terminated nine positions
throughout the park; two of those positions were the paleontologists
exclusively engaged in paleontology research.
"Under the plan, the research-grade paleontologist
position was changed to a non-research grade paleontologist position
that emphasizes management of the research program rather than hands-on
research," Cartwright wrote. "The other paleontology position will
be abolished via a transfer."
After both existing paleontology positions are vacated,
the plan calls for the creation of a new position called a "physical
resources program specialist," responsible for generating externally
conducted research and research funding for the park's paleontology
resources and other physical resources.
The new position also will involve soliciting grants
and developing cooperative agreements or other collaborative arrangements
for research and prepatory work with universities, state entities
and other federal agencies.
Actual research reportedly will take up less than
50 percent of this position's duties.
Cartwright said shifting park duties away from hands-on
research is necessary to ensure that Dinosaur National Monument
obtains as much research and protection as possible for the amount
of funding allocated to the park's various science programs.
"Dinosaur's other science programs have successfully
generated thousands of dollars from grants, cooperative agreements,
special funding and hours of volunteer work," he said.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
Defending the changes, Cartwright said that "within
the region, collaborative arrangements with Cooperative Ecosystem
Studies Units at several universities have produced significant
research support for various parks in a highly cost-effective manner.
"In addition, working with partners gives the National
Park Service the flexibility to collaborate with entities that are
uniquely positioned to address a specific park research need," he
"Such arrangements enable the National Park Service
to seek creative and cooperative ways of ensuring the highest level
of protection for park resources, even in periods of stagnant budgets,"
"Understandably, changing/eliminating the two full-time
park paleontology positions may appear to reflect a lack of commitment
to the paleontology program at Dinosaur," he said. "In fact, our
goal is to ensure that paleontology resources at Dinosaur benefit
from the world-class expertise that can be found within universities
and other institutions around the country and the world.
"Cooperative efforts with such partners enables the
National Park Service to tap the vast expertise available outside
the agency and apply that expertise to the protection and understanding
of Dinosaur's world-class paleontological resources."
The park's fossil beds were discovered in 1909 by
paleontologist Earl Douglass from the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.
The monument was established in 1915 to protect the bones discovered
in the area.
Today the original quarry forms a wall inside the
monument's visitor center, and researchers have uncovered over 1,500
According to the Washington Post, there has been
a paleontologist at the monument since the 1950s and the program
has been very successful, providing a continuous stream of discoveries
over the last 10 years.
Denver-based paleontologist Kenneth Carpenter said
Cartwright's move to bring in outside researchers has serious drawbacks.
"This type of outsourcing may work in the corporate
world where companies are waiting for other firms to contact them
to perform a service, but that's not how it works in academia,"
he said. "Scientists have their own research projects they are actively
working on, and to assume there are people out there just waiting
for someone to contact them to come to the monument is very naive.
"In fact, Dan Chure, DNM chief paleontologist, has
invited outside scientists to come to the monument to work with
him, but he has had limited success."
And even if an outside scientist were interested
in working at the monument, there are no funds to promote the research.
Carpenter said the cuts in the monument's paleontology
program will set back research. Chure has been with the monument
for about 15 years, and his level of expertise would be next to
impossible to duplicate through outside sources, he said.
"I understand the park service has budgetary concerns,
but under the position management plan Cartwright has included new
positions for a personal secretary for himself, an auto mechanic
and a new park ranger.
"Shouldn't it be more important to take care of the
science?" Carpenter said.
"He has apparently found funds for the items he feels
Progress, Just Around the Corner?
Cartwright said the DNM has received funding to start
rehabilitation of the Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center, and in 2003
initial work will begin on developing an interpretive plan for the
park, which will address the need for new exhibits at the visitor
The monument also is partnering with the state of
Utah, local governments and other federal agencies to construct
a curatorial facility that will include fossil storage, fossil preparation
and a paleontology library. The facility will be built in conjunction
with a new Utah Field House Museum, he said.
"The monument has had a 50-year history of on-site
paleontological research and now the park service is suggesting
that it fall back to the 1930s when it had caretakers who knew nothing
about dinosaurs," said Donald R. Prothero, chair and professor of
geology at Occidental College.
"The large existing collections and the delicate specimens
now on display need someone with the proper expertise to curate
them and protect them or they will be lost forever."
Of course, not all paleontologists view the changes
as catastrophic. Boulder, Colo.-based paleontologist Bob Bakker
told the Denver Post the budget cuts are unfortunate, but that there
are sufficient research programs in the West to sustain the science.
"I completely understand the panic when one of our
outposts seems to be overrun by the bean counters, but I think they
did the necessary thing. It will not affect the care given to the
American people's fossils," Bakker said. "Other people will pick
up the slack."
The Flood Gates Open
NPS director Fran Mainella has gotten such a flood
of reaction over the change — including congressional inquiries
— that she does intend to address the concerns in a letter that
is due out in December, according to David Applegate, director of
governmental affairs for the American Geological Institute.
Plus, following the outcry over the cuts in the paleontology
program, the park service did amend its plan to require the new
"physical resources program specialist" be a vertebrate paleontologist.
In addition to Mainella's letter, at press time in
early December AGI was setting up a meeting between park service
officials and representatives of paleontological societies to discuss
the situation and investigate the broader implications of this move
to the park's system.
"I do think there is a trend within the park service
to shift from staff research scientists to soliciting outside research,"
Applegate said. "In fact, there are very few scientists in the park
service still doing research."
Cartwright acknowledged that.
"The National Park Service increasingly is shifting
its focus away from in-house research toward generating external
research and funding," he said. "That shift reflects both limited
budget resources, but also a growing awareness that National Park
Service research activities cannot alone provide the information
necessary to protect America's natural and cultural treasures."
Regardless of which side people might favor in this
controversy, there is no argument that the Dinosaur National Monument
is indeed a national treasure and represents much of what the world
knows about dinosaurs today.
"This controversy has triggered an incredible international
response," Applegate said. "Our hope is that the park service will
do what is right for the science and the monument itself."