Full of extinct possibilities Tourists will make tracks for dinosaurs, geologist Peter Kranz tells state officials. It's part of his effort to bring science and people together

CATCHING UP WITH ... PETER KRANZ

November 29, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

EMMITSBURG - Peter Kranz, Maryland's dinosaur evangelist, teeters precariously on the weed-choked slope of an old mudstone quarry near the Pennsylvania line.

His feet slipping on the tilted bedrock and fallen leaves, the Washington-based geologist is trying to explain to quarry owner and town councilman Patrick Boyle how Emmitsburg could turn the rocks in this forlorn place into a wellspring of tourist dollars.

"If you peel this back," he says, waving toward the brush and dirt clinging to the quarry's layered rock slabs, "there's absolutely going to be footprints on them."

Dinosaur footprints, that is. After all, dinosaur tracks from these same ancient mud flats were found here a century ago. There's a slice of them on display now at the Maryland Science Center. The town could expose more tracks here, or lift them out and display them in a more convenient spot.

Boyle scratches his head. Kranz keeps talking.

"Get yourself a dinosaur logo, and maybe have a big sign on Route 15 if it's allowed," he says. "People will come to see dinosaur tracks, and they might even buy gasoline. People will stop for a dinosaur, I kid you not."

It's an idea that Kranz has been peddling elsewhere for a decade now: People, especially kids, love dinosaurs. And while Maryland is no Montana, dinosaur tracks, fossil bones and teeth are found here too, and they offer real opportunities for education, tourism and economic development.

Take Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Conn. The 500 tracks of Jurassic predators there drew 82,000 visitors last year. Half came from out of state and many from overseas, says director Richard Krueger. The state just built a $2 million museum there.

Tiny Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, built the Fundy Geological Museum and turned that town's 200 million-year-old fossil deposits into a local industry catering to geological tourists.

So why not Maryland? Kranz asks.

Last winter, he and a gaggle of Maryland schoolchildren de-scended on Annapolis to push the General Assembly to designate a 60-foot-long Cretaceous plant-eater called Astrodon johnstoni as the state's official dinosaur. They were undeterred by a decade of failures, or by the laughter and fear of political embarrassment among some politicians.

Lawmakers may have wondered about this wild-looking guy with the Grizzly Adams face, the Astrodon T-shirt and pith helmet. But his quest was no silly stunt.

A legislative victory for Astrodon, Kranz and his allies in the General Assembly believed, would alert lawmakers and their constituents to the presence of dinosaur remains in Maryland, and to their potential educational and economic benefit.

Del. Joan B. Pitkin, of Prince George's County, and Baltimore Sen. Nathaniel McFadden understood, and co-sponsored the bill. They argued that New Jersey's state dinosaur - "Haddie," for Hadrosaurus foulki - has spawned hats, T-shirts and puppets that earn barrels of money for the State Museum at Trenton.

It worked. Astrodon and the kids won.

"At this point," Kranz says, "if there's a legislator in the state of Maryland that doesn't know there are dinosaurs in this state, I would be very surprised. We've got the momentum moving in favor of the dinosaurs."

Kranz is relentless, says Pitkin. "He's colorful and persistent - indomitable really. He doesn't take setbacks very hard. He just keeps going." His next project - an Astrodon license plate.

Years of dogged persistence by Kranz and Rich Dolesh, chief of history and interpretation at the National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, persuaded the agency in 1995 to set aside 15 acres near U.S. Route 1 in Muirkirk, Prince George's County, as a fossil dig site for a planned dinosaur park.

It's near the spot where 100-million-year-old fossil bones and teeth of Astrodon and other creatures have turned up for 140 years. Kranz envisions a modest beginning, with a nature center offering hands-on paleontology for kids, and later a conference center and library for scientists.

He and Pitkin plan to seek County Executive Wayne K. Curry's support, and then take the idea to Gov. Parris Glendening.

But on this dry autumn day, Kranz's attention has turned to Emmitsburg and helping the town fathers figure out how to exploit their dinosaur heritage.

"The town was very concerned ... that the historic, archaeological and paleontological resources be protected in some way," says David Whitaker, a planner with Frederick County's department of planning and zoning. In August, the town updated its comprehensive town plan to protect dinosaur tracks or fossils as "sensitive areas," the same as steep slopes and stream buffers. Developers must conduct paleontological surveys before construction.

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