You are here

Dinosaur National Monument Cutting Paleontology Staff


Should we be concerned that the Park Service is reducing the paleontologoical staff at Dinosaur National Monument? Northern Arizona University photo.

The Blue Ridge Parkway without a landscape architect. Grand Canyon without a staff geologist. Mount Rainier without a volcanologist. Dinosaur National Monument without a paleontologist.

Is this how we want the National Park Service to operate?

Back when Fran Mainella was the Park Service director, there was a battle over whether Park Service jobs would be outsourced to private contractors. That battle eventually was beaten back.

Or was it?

After all, there seems to be a serious drive in the Park Service to use more and more volunteers out in the field, at Gateway National Recreation Area the superintendent supports the leasing of aging structures at historic Fort Hancock to commercial interests because the Park Service can't afford their maintenance, and the Presidio of San Francisco is run more like a business than a unit of the national park system.

So what are we to make of the news that Dinosaur National Monument is whittling its staff of three paleontologists down to just one?

"They're cutting out the heart of the paleo program," Margaret Imhof, a private contracting paleontologist in Vernal, Utah, tells the Salt Lake Tribune.

Superintendent Mary Risser, however, tells the newspaper that the monument's remaining paleontologist, Dan Chure, can accomplish the monument's mission by working with academic and museum researchers. Perhaps that's true. After all, academics were responsible for discovering the site that's cut in half by the Green River. The current cost-cutting just brings matters full circle.

But do we want units of the national park system run by groups -- whether they're for-profit or non-profit -- other than the National Park Service? And if that's OK, why should the units remain part of the system? In the case of Dinosaur, the state of Utah runs a first-class paleontological museum in nearby Vernal. Why not simply give the state the national monument? That'd save the cash-strapped Park Service some money.

Once upon a time, some held a dream of seeing Dinosaur become a full-fledged national park. Can that still be possible with its research effectively outsourced? More importantly, is the cost-cutting at Dinosaur emblematic of what's transpiring across the national park system? Should we be surprised by such cuts engineered by the Bush administration? Is this good government at work, or a garage sale?

Back in 2006 when I raised the question of whether a national park becomes less of a national park when pieces of it are handed over to commercial interests under the guise of leasing, a superintendent lamented the lack of fiscal resources to do his job.

"The problem is not Park Service neglect, in my experience," the superintendent told me. "It's the excruciating dilemma of not having the tools to protect the resources, no matter how much we want to do. If the choice is to allow the resources to degrade significantly or work with partners to arrest or reverse it, I don't know any superintendent, current or past, who wouldn't look very hard at the partnership option.

"I think the problem right now is that all the rhetoric and organizational and political incentives favor the partnerships, overshadowing the policy statements that tell us these are public resources and the public benefit should always come first."


I've been to Dinosaur only once, but the trip is still vivid in my memory. I live near D.C. and get to visit the best museums that the country has to offer any time I want to, but it is no comparison to actually being in Dinosaur and seeing the massive jumble of bones in the rock. More impressive, having truly knowledgable staff there to answer even the most routine questions from the tourists!! In my experience with the national parks, having visited now all but 4 in the United States, the staff will go above and beyond to make your trip educational. The volenteers, however, get tired with answering the same questions by the kids over and over and you simply do NOT get the same experience. I truly wonder if the people who decided that this cut would be a 'good' idea have ever spent a great deal of time in Dinosaur and have a honest understanding of the "mission" of the park. If the museum was the experience, then I'd have had the experience here in D.C. -but you can't get the true experience of Dinosaur from a musuem. Anyone who has ever been there knows this... once again, cuts are being made by people who do not have a clue what they are cutting. It makes me very frustrated. If I were in charge, I would require that before a park suffers a cut back, the people in charge would have to spend a minimum of 3 weeks living and working there.

In all likelihood, this is another example of cutting essential programs that is derived from the "core operations" process - the brainchild of Mike Snyder, the Regional Director in the Intermountain Region of the NPS, in which Dinosaur NM is located. Another recent example of this is the effort to consolidate the Santa Fe Support Office into the Old Santa Fe Trails Building, which many have worried could cause serious impairment to this National Landmark. There are other things like this "afoot" in the Region, obviously instigated by Snyder - about whom some have said, "He knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing!"

Bill Wade
Chair, Executive Council
Coalition of National Park Service Retirees

Mt. Rainier works with the US Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, WA. They don't need their own NPS volcanologist--USGS does a great job.

The USGS does a great job at Rainier, and the public gets to see what part of this process? Maybe a seismograph needle? The beauty of Dinosaur USED to be that people could see something in action in the field or in the lab. Since the visitor center shut down there have been few fossils to see and only a couple of days of excavation the public could actually see. At a time when services for the public are so stunted at this park, is is absurd to be eliminating the very people who are best suited to give both the public and researchers what they most need- an inspiring educational experience and important fossils. As for the benifits and efficiency of outsourcing this work, since 2002 when the NPS first tried to cut this program, there have been 6 years to prove it can be done. The results of outsourcing have been meager at best, and their work has been almost invisible to the public. At a time when other paleontology parks are thriving and growing, one has to wonder why Dinosaur is crashing and burning.

What the heck is a "full-fledged national park.? You should know better. There is no difference in management by law or policy of a unit of the National Park System based on its nomenclature. When places like Cayuhoga and Congaree changed to national "parks" nothing changed but their names. YOu should be the voice of accuracy for parks, not a contributor to the silly nonsense that is perpetuated by the meaningless diversity of designations.

Ouch. Shoot the messenger why don't you?

The fact of the matter is that in the monument's past there have been efforts to see it renamed Dinosaur National Park, so that was an accurate statement. Would such a change have an overall impact on management of Dinosaur? Maybe, maybe not.

But you can be sure the surrounding communities would love to see the change in designation as it would bring in more tourists. That's exactly what's behind the move down at Cedar Breaks National Monument to have it renamed a "park."

Monument or Park, the key word here is "Dinosaur".

Of course, the monument has lovely rivers, wildlife, botany and cultural resources. Park management has recently been using these other resources as justification for reducing the paleo program (see, article on 2/19/08). Clearly ALL resources need protection and interpretation. However, it isnt called Dinosaur National Monument for nothing! Paleo has been identified as its core mission as well as being part of the founding legislation.

What I want to know is:
-- Is the priority balancing a budget or keeping the park active and dynamic?
-- What sort of specific requests (and advocating for the need of a full paleo program) have been done by park management? That is, did anyone TRY to keep the program alive or merely favor balancing numbers?
-- How are these decisions being made without a FY2008 budget in place while there is talk of a $200 million increase?
-- Why have internal suggestions of alternative interpretive programs (since the quarry building closure) such as screenwashing demonstrations and re-opening of "outsourced" quarries not occurred? Did someone want to claim that "paleontology has lost its appeal"?
-- Does park management fully understand the pitfalls of relying on outsourcing to continue the program?
-- Do they know the value of the work currently being done by all staff?

First, re the exchange between Arizonaman and Kurt about "full-fledged national park" status, the nomenclature is indeed meaningless as far as policy, but it still has an effect. "National Park" has more cachet with the public and often translates to more visitation, which will sooner or later influence management.

Alas, at Dinosaur we can not "be sure the surrounding communities would love to see the change in designation." The name change proposal back in the '80s withered in the face of local opposition, because the old guard of the Uinta Basin is dedicated to extractive industries. Their rallying cry was that park status would require Class I air quality designation and prevent further energy development (and God forbid that we should breathe clean air instead of building a multitude of coal-burning power plants with which to turn the entire Basin substrate into a giant oven for extraction of shale oil... but I digress).

In any case, energy still ties into the present Dinosaur debacle. Had the quarry been closed 10 or 15 years ago, in a downturn of the boom-bust cycle, I think there would have been a lot more uproar about closing the Basin's number one visitor destination. Now, local motels, restaurants, campgrounds and just about everything else are packed with oil/gas employees. The impact of the quarry closure on tourism has hardly been noticed—except, one suspects, by NPS managers who are thinking, "Now's our chance to gut the paleo program, when nobody's looking."

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide