Where Dinosaurs Once Walked

New 7.5-acre Park Near Laurel Is Called 'One Of The Most Prolific Sites For Dinosaur And Plant Fossils East Of The Mississippi River'

October 25, 2009|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,frank.roylance@baltsun.com

One hundred million years in development, Maryland's first dinosaur park is set to be turned over Monday to the Prince George's County Department of Parks and Recreation and opened to the public.

The 7.5-acre parcel contains what county archaeologist Donald Creveling called "one of the most prolific sites for dinosaur and plant fossils east of the Mississippi River, and it's right here between Baltimore and Washington."

While the park will provide public parking, walkways, evocative plantings and interpretive signs, access to the fossil deposits themselves will be limited.

"The main purpose of the park is to preserve these very rare fossil deposits," Creveling said. "But we also will do limited public programs ... particularly geared toward children, where they can come and work with scientists."

That's just fine with David Hacker, a systems analyst and amateur paleontologist who has been watching over the vulnerable site for four years and searching for fossils there every week as erosion has exposed them.

"It's a hobby," he said. "I enjoy being out there alone. ... We find a lot of crocodilian and turtle material. We also find these sequoia cones, all from the same time period 115 million years ago" when the region was a coastal bayou.

One of Hacker's most recent finds was a tooth from one of the largest known species of tank-like ankylosaurs, called Priconodon.

"Everything gets offered up to science, to the Smithsonian," he said. "I don't feel like I actually own them. It's a privilege to be out there. ... Sites like this one, on the East Coast, from this time period, are very rare. And this is the only one that's really producing any fossils."

Professional paleontologists and amateurs will be permitted to continue to work the site. But "all significant fossils will be curated by the Smithsonian Institution," under an agreement that has not been finalized, Creveling said.

The Dinosaur Park is located in Muirkirk, near Laurel, on the former site of 19th-century iron mines, a 20th-century clay pit and the General Shale Co. brick factory.

In 1859, Philip Tyson, the state agricultural chemist, discovered a large fossil dinosaur tooth there. It was later ascribed to a plant-eating reptile named Astrodon johnstoni, which the legislature has designated as the Maryland state dinosaur.

Relics of the late Cretaceous period - traces of plants, reptiles and even early mammals - have been emerging from the Arundel Formation clay for 150 years. The largest was a 4-foot fragment of a 6-foot-long dinosaur femur found in 1991 by amateur paleontologist Arnold Norden and his children.

In 2006, Michael Styre, another amateur working the site, uncovered a 2-foot leg bone. It was later excavated by a professional from the Smithsonian, where it was to be curated and put on display.

But the property remained in private hands, vulnerable to trespassers and development after the closure of the brickyard in 1990. So local paleontologists began looking for ways to protect it.

In 2005, the 41-acre brickyard was sold to Jackson-Shaw, a Dallas company. It has since developed a business park there called The Brick Yard. Tom Aylward, its vice president for development, was so fascinated by the paleontological finds that he agreed in 2006 to spend $125,000 to develop a 7.5-acre wedge of the land as a public park.

"We did our research and knew that the resource was valuable," Aylward said. While the National Capital Park and Planning Commission had acquired adjacent land to protect the deposit, "that piece of property really didn't have a good public entrance."

The only place where the fossil bed is exposed was also on Jackson-Shaw land.

"The idea of creating a dinosaur park ... provided a unique feature for our business park and allowed us to contribute to the preservation of the heritage and to the interest in the area," Aylward said.

In 2007, he dedicated that land, valued at $1 million, to Prince George's County through the National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Since then, Jackson-Shaw has installed protective fencing and planted the area with ginkgo trees, ferns and other species similar to those that grew in the area 100 million years ago.

Completion of the land transfer on Monday comes as a relief to Peter Kranz, a Washington geologist and tireless promoter of the area's dinosaur heritage. He lobbied for years for the site's protection.

"This time, finally, the inertia is going to be on our side," he said. "Once [it] becomes a dinosaur park, as opposed to 'the potential dinosaur park,' then you have the inertia, [and can say], 'What do you mean you want to put in a go-cart track?' "

Kranz will be watching as the county shapes its plans for granting access to the site. He favors orientation sessions for would-be fossil hunters and some sort of credentialing to show park rangers that they can work the site responsibly.

Creveling agrees, but the rules are still in development. "We do realize amateur paleontologists have made some very significant finds out there, and we certainly do not want to exclude them," he said. "But until we get a handle on things, we want to make sure the site is protected."

Public access will be limited and will be supervised by scientists. They will work clay and fossil deposits dug up during site development for the office park. And all significant finds will go to the Smithsonian.

"It won't be a situation where, say, like at Calvert Cliffs, just pick up a shark's tooth and take it home," Creveling said.

But details of the public programs, too, remain unresolved.

"We are not sure what the level of interest will be, so we don't know what level of programs we will be offering," he said.

The development of fossil displays on or near the site would require new funding. But Creveling said he does envision displays at county nature centers and traveling school exhibits.

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