Next stop on the Dinosaur Diamond*: Moab. My GeoCorps™ Experience in Canyon Country, Utah

by Jessica Uglesich, Paleontology Interpretation Assistant BLM Canyon Country District/Moab Field Office 

Rescuing dinosaurs from thieves, watching a long-neck dinosaur fly, and recording a plug on local radio. GeoCorps America™; it just keeps getting better.

Not that my first GeoCorps project wasn’t a remarkable experience. The 2015 season spent at the visitor center at the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry in Emery County, Utah ignited my passion for public outreach and education and helped land the position in Moab. But the number and variety of experiences I had in 2016 in Canyon Country were beyond anything I could have anticipated.

Canyon (and Dinosaur) Country

I arrived in Moab in early July. If you haven’t been to Moab, Utah yet, I suggest you head there immediately—or at least before the concept of public lands becomes a thing of the past. Moab is a small ‘tourist’ town of about 5,000 people nestled between staggering rock formations that are literally embedded with clues to past natural and cultural worlds. Two of Utah’s five national parks are just outside of town—Arches and Canyonlands—and the Colorado River flows just north of town and carves part of the western border of BLM Utah’s Canyon Country District—a region that spans the southeast portion of the state and includes the new Bears Ears National Monument. Whatever you’re into recreationally, Moab has it. Jeeping, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, kayaking, hiking, camping, base jumping, rockhounding—just to name a few. What sets Moab apart for me, as a student of geology and lover of nature, are the raw rock formations that stretch vertically for hundreds of feet and come in almost every color you can imagine; the deep reds will draw you in, but once you’re face-to-face with the outcrop, you’ll find greens and purples and blues that seem to exist only to contrast and heighten its opposite hue. This desert landscape has an incomparable effect that begins in the eye, percolates to the soul, and leaves a resonating serenity throughout.

But achieving transcendental truth wasn’t in the official project description. Those beautiful rocks I was waxing poetic about were deposited during the Mesozoic Era—during the Age of Dinosaurs—and my GeoCorps Project was to teach people about them. Talk to people about rocks and dinos? AND get paid? Yeah, I could do that.

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Jessica Uglesich, BLM, the Moab Information Center in downtown Moab, Utah, leading a free paleontology talk, 2016.

The idea (and funding) behind my GeoCorps position was to support and promote the new “Respect and Protect” Campaign—a campaign aimed to raise awareness about the significance of natural and cultural resources and to engage the public in the stewardship of these resources. Looting and vandalism of natural and cultural resources have been an ongoing problem for, well, forever now. Perhaps it’s the idealist in me, but I believe that, for the most part, people want to do that right thing when visiting these sites, but are just unaware of what that is. It’s astonishing how many people don’t know that it is not only disserving to science to collect a fragment of dinosaur bone, but it is also illegal. With Moab being the visitor hub it is, it is the perfect place to educate the public on fossil protection and stewardship. Moab is also home to several public fossil sites that the BLM has developed into outdoor museums fully equipped with interpretive panels and even artist renditions of what the environment of the site would’ve looked like when the dinosaurs roamed. These public fossil sites and the Moab Information Center in town would be the classrooms in which I’d deliver free lessons on natural history and resource protection— namely, what to do if you discover a fossil in the field.

Jurassic Walks and Talks

I wanted a catchy name for the tours and talks. It was the pilot year for the program, and we had to do some work to get the word out. I thought it’d be clever to put a spin on the “Jurassic Park” logo and phrase—arguably shameful but definitely the most recognizable dinosaur logo of the 20th and 21st centuries—and so “Jurassic Walks and Talks,” with an Allosaur spitting those words, was born. I called advertising agencies, wrote blurbs and articles, posted fliers all around town; I even interviewed on the local radio station, which after the initial airing, they clipped into a plug to continuously play as long as the tours and talks went on.

“Jurassic Walks and Talks” went on for six weekends, with three tours and three talks each Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The location of the tours alternated between five public fossil sites: The Poison Spider Tracksite, the Dinosaur Stomping Grounds, the Copper Ridge Tracksite, the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail, and the Mill Canyon Tracksite. Spanning nearly 80 million years, these sites record the evolution of environments and the evolution of the creatures that once inhabited them.

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Jessica Uglesich, BLM, Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail in Grand County, Utah, 2017. No river wide enough to keep us from getting our interpretation signs up!

Each site is unique. Poison spider features tracks of an unknown large meat-eating dinosaur for which we haven’t found a skeleton because the environment 190 million years ago was unfavorable for preserving bones, much like the Sahara Desert today. At the Dinosaur Stomping Grounds, thousands of single dinosaur tracks are preserved on the slickrock that was once an ancient shoreline when Utah was beachfront property 165 million years ago. A long-necked “sauropod” dinosaur’s sharp right turn along a river shore 150 million years ago is visible at the Copper Ridge Tracksite—something not seen in other sauropod trackways and naturally provokes the hypothesis of predation. Countless dinosaurs were carried by rivers and laid to rest at the Million Canyon Dinosaur Trail, where their bones are still embedded in rock 150 million years later. And, finally, the youngest site, in both geologic age and human discovery, is the 112-million-year-old Mill Canyon Tracksite, where at least ten different types of tracks can be viewed at one of the most diverse and best preserved sites of its age in the world.

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Jessica Uglesich, BLM, Grand County, Utah, leading a tour at the Poison Spider Tracksite, 2016.

Showing folks these paleontological wonders was a typical weekend morning. Evenings would bring us back to town to the Moab Information Center, where our talks would cover everything from local dinosaur fauna to dinosaurs’ shoe sizes, and, on some nights, engage kids (and grownup kids) in activities including making fossil casts, excavating and piecing together dinosaurs, and sifting fossils out of a bucket of rocks. Activity nights were my favorite, and I think the junior paleontologists who came back every week would agree.

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Jessica Uglesich, BLM, the Moab Information Center in downtown Moab, Utah, talks to visitors about dinosaur feet and natural resources protection, 2016.

If developing and leading the tours and talks were the only thing I did during my GeoCorps experience, I would’ve been perfectly satisfied. What followed the end wasn’t the typical feeling of relief that comes with success, but rather an unwillingness to let go. The interactions and feedback were so incredibly positive; I wanted to make them the entirety of my project. But there was other work to be done; we had dinosaurs to dig up.

Saving Dinosaurs and Watching Them Fly

The week before the final “Jurassic Walks and Talks” weekend, a few of us from the BLM investigated a looted dinosaur bone site south of town. The culprits had covered the site with a tarp in hopes to preserve the exposed material—standard excavator practice, so we knew these guys were professionals— but fortunately for us, it alerted us to the dinosaur thievery that had taken place. In a matter of two days, we surveyed what was exposed, quickly jacketed it, and hauled it back to BLM warehouse where it’d soon be picked up by the St. George Dinosaur Museum to use as an education piece for fossil preparation.

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Jessica Uglesich, BLM, San Juan County, Utah, recovers a bone from a looted fossil site on BLM land, 2016.

“Jacketing” dinosaur bone has been the method of preparing and protecting fossils for transport since the early days of paleontology and is, without question, my favorite part of field work. The reason for that is, as the Moab Sun News put, you “[get] plastered.” The headline about one of our digs that made the BLM PR representative cringe—“Getting plastered in San Juan County”—was entirely accurate in the literal sense and completely hysterical given the state liquor laws. Jacketing is simply creating a protective “jacket” around the bone with burlap and plaster. And, as you battle to get the jacket done before the plaster sets, you make a bit of a mess. The professionals will take pride in their ability to keep things clean, but I like getting a little messy and I enjoy the feel of liquid plaster. (There’s a joke from that scene in Ghost somewhere in there.) I truthfully feel a bit of sadness when the last piece of hardened plaster falls off my boots months after the end of the field season. It’s as if it were the one thing still keeping the field season, or my personal connectedness to it, alive and it, as with the field season, officially becomes a thing of the past.

Luckily for me, saving dinosaurs from looters wouldn’t be the last time I got plastered that season. The week after the final tours and talks, I, along with my two new co-participants, headed back to San Juan County to excavate another dinosaur. This time we would be digging up the earliest sauropod ever discovered on North America!

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Jessica Uglesich, BLM, San Juan County, Utah, jackets a bone at Dystrophaeus site, Utah, 2016.

By the end of the Jurassic, about 150 million years ago, the long-necks were at their maximum abundance and diversity in North America, but only 10 million years prior to that, we don’t find skeletal remains. Dystrophaeus represents the earliest at around 158 million years old. It was first discovered in 1859 during a military survey by John Newberry, making it the first associated dinosaur site west of the Mississippi River. And it’s quite the wonder how. The location of this site is on a ledge over 100 feet above a vertical sandstone cliff and requires harnesses and ropes to access it. If you’ve spent any time in the upper member of the late Jurassic Morrison Formation looking for dinosaur bone, you are bound to find scattered pieces. How this site ended up being the first skeleton found and documented is truly a wonder. And it’s a wonder that is recognized. The historical and prehistorical significance earned the project funding from National Geographic. With it, the institutions involved in the project—the Museum of Moab, the University of Utah, and the BLM—were able to fund a helicopter to transport materials and jackets from the site to the access road, allowing for a significantly more productive season and for a spectacular sight of a flying sauropod.

I still can’t believe I was a part of it.

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Jessica Uglesich, BLM, and the rest of the Dystrophaeus team, San Juan County, Utah, stand proud as they wrap up their dig on BLM land, 2016.

Reflections

It’s kind of weird how things work out. When I was at the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, I led a children’s author on a tour of the grounds. Her name is Judy Young, and she was writing the second book in her adventures of “Buck Bray” series. This time, Buck was tracking dinosaurs across Utah. Aware of them, but having never visited them all myself, I suggested she explore the tracksites in the Moab area.

Months later, she emailed me to let me know that she had finished the manuscript for her second “Buck Bray” book titled At the Dinosaur Stomping Grounds and that she had named a character after me. Elated, I thanked her and told her what I was up to now: leading tours at the “Dinosaur Stomping Grounds” outside of Moab, to which she replied “you do in my book too.”

I’m currently awaiting the publication of the book, so I can find out what else future me is up to.

For now, I sit at the base of a cliff that stretches at least 300 feet above me. Nearly two hundred million years before me—a span of time incomprehensible to even the most scientific mind— creatures with legs the size of my whole body walked here. And I can see their footprints. I am humbled and grounded, and I, like Buck, am compelled to follow them.

*The Dinosaur Diamond is a 512-mile scenic byway that includes the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, the scene of my first GeoCorps project, and Moab, the scene of my second GeoCorps experience. (It also includes Fruita, CO, where I’m headed next for more dinosaur adventures.)

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