Paleo Research on Park Chop Block

Dinosaur National Monument to Lose Positions

There's 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.

Image Caption

A mounted Allosaurus.

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There's 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 said.

"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," he continued.

"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 dinosaur bones.

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.

Serious Drawbacks

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 are necessary."

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 center.

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."