The vision for the National Landscape Conservation System includes being a world leader in conservation by protecting landscapes, applying knowledge, and bringing people together to share stewardship of the land. How has your work in the paleontology program helped implement this vision?
First of all, we are working with world-class resources. That always helps. When I first started here, I had some doubts about GSENM’s paleontological importance. We had mostly found microvertebrates at that point, but when we dove in, we were wildly successful. When you are working with such a great resource, it becomes internationally known on its own merits. The research we do receives international attention as a world-class program because the fossils are truly are important, both to researchers and the public. In our research we are very careful to acknowledge NLCS, which elevates NLCS and the paleontology program. Over time the program has cascaded into a collaborative effort; people want to come here. We bring together universities, colleges, museums, and citizen scientists at GSENM. A lot of our work relies on volunteers, and we would not be able to accomplish nearly this much without our collaborators and volunteers. The Federal Government, non-profits, and educators come together to elevate the status of NCLS at GSENM through the great work they do.
Recently we’ve had the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, James Cook University in Australia, the Berlin Museum of Natural History, the Royal Ontario Museum in Ontario Canada and the Royal Tyrrell Museum also in Canada all doing research at GSENM. News stories about our new finds make routinely make international news. How can this not help but elevate the status of the NLCS and demonstrate our ideals?
BLM leadership and others in the administration have spoken about the importance of science as a foundation for decision-making. What role does science based decision-making play in your job, and how do you think that your scientific research is used to inform policy within GSENM and the BLM’s Paleontology Program?
We hope to set an example for other paleontological management programs. We are still in a data collection phase at GSENM; we are gaining data about the resources and collecting important species. This, in turn, informs our policy and decision making. Over time, we have reached the conclusion that we should invest time and money finding out more about the resources here, because the resource deserves it. It is important to support this work, both basic inventory science and data collection because we endeavor to know as much as we can about our planet’s history and the lessons it can teach us. For instance, the animals we dig up lived in a hothouse climate and could potentially show us how our world would respond should our planet warm significantly over the next 100 years. We also develop models that indicate specific areas in the Monument we need to focus our limited enforcement resources onto protect.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned at GSENM is that we need to get collaboration with outside organizations that have an intrinsic interest in what you have to offer. Local managers should develop relationships with organizations that have a track record of research on the resources they manage, no matter where the organization is located and then support those institutions as best they can. These organizations will almost always maximize whatever resources they have to make a project happen, because the researchers themselves are personally driven for results. They are much more than just “hired guns” on projects, due to their vested interest in the outcomes of their work. Their work transcends a report, spreadsheet, or management recommendations. Management also needs to focus on fostering scientific inquiry and creating a research friendly atmosphere. I’ve worked with many resource managers that fear science because they fear the changes it may bring in their programs. Let’s face it, several initiatives supporting the pursuit of science in the BLM clearly show it is the best tactic. Let’s act on that and integrate science into every aspect of resource management. Encouraging support of basic research has been successful here at GSENM and I think should become a model. We want to support research and learn from the research. We created a collaborative effort and it worked.
When I first got to GSENM I contacted people who had a history of research in the Monument. Some weren’t interested in working with us, but three were. Each of the researchers, driven by a personal hunger for discovery and supported by volunteers, were able to pound out huge acres and make remarkable discoveries. Over the years our work has become almost seamless, as if we were one organization. For instance, the Natural History Museum of Utah will find a site and we will work it, or vice versa. So much has come out of it. It is a nice synergy. We are all getting way more out of the whole than the sum of the parts.
What are some of your daily activities as a paleontologist at GSENM?
My activities largely depend on the season. In the spring, we do data collection and inventory getting into the new areas. When school gets out in the summer we shift to excavation and collaborate with schools and museums. I am mostly out in the field. As fall rolls around we try to excavate and fly out specimens with helicopters. In winter our work is largely reports, budgets, getting seasonal people hired, etc. I spend a lot of time in the office as well as in the field.
Can you talk about the BLM’s Paleontology Program at GSENM?
Myself and one other paleontologist (Rebecca Hunt-Foster in Moab, Utah) are the only ones in BLM field offices; the rest are regional paleontologists in state offices. With no disrespect intended, they mostly do policy and issuance of permits, stuff like that. Rebecca and I actually get to go out in the field much more and run a field based program.
Over the years I have been able to slowly expand the program at GSENM. In addition to my position there is a 6 month seasonal, a full time temporary field and lab technician, and sometimes a couple of interns as well as 13 regular volunteers. We also have a lab facility for doing research which is different from nearly any other field office. Fortunately for me, the resource we manage demands it.
Can you discuss some of your current research?
My current research is on the Parasaurolophus, a tube nosed dinosaur we found here at GSENM. I am also really interested in the alligators we have found here, some primitive and unusual forms that have previously not been found anywhere else. We also recently published a paper about a petrified wood survey we did here. We discovered this area used be covered mostly by redwood trees. I also just finished editing a 700 page scientific book on the Cretaceous age fossils and geology of the GSENM region.
Can you talk about some of the public outreach you are involved in?
I am a teacher by training and love to lecture. I have made it a priority to go talk about our work and also bring in specialists to talk to the local communities. The locals are just starting to appreciate that they are on top of a world-class research site. I frequently speak to colleges, tourists and other public audiences. We also have traveling exhibits based on the dinosaur skulls that we have found locally. These travel around the state to banks, hotels, festivals and the like. We even sent one of our exhibits to the Boy Scout National Jamboree and had 14,000 scouts go through it.
With so many geological and paleontological significant sites found within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, where would you recommend people visit when they come explore the monument?
You can always stop by the headquarters to see the lab if I am available. The Big Water visitor center is exclusively paleontology focused. They have real bone on exhibit, a beautiful mural, and a friendly, knowledgeable staff.
We have also come up with a road guide published by the Glen Canyon Natural History Association that could be useful to visitors. There is also the Twenty Mile Wash dinosaur tracksite located (appropriately!) twenty miles south of Escalante which has an interpretive brochure to help guide visitors.
How has your life changed as a result of having a species of dinosaur, Nasutoceratops titusi, named after you?
Interestingly enough, my life has changed. I feel like I am getting a little more respect now. Now that I have been on the front page of the paper there is more recognition of my role in the community. However, it hasn’t really changed my daily routine at work, but my mom is really proud! I would also like to mention that the team at the Natural History Museum of Utah and Denver Museum of Nature and Science really deserve most of the recognition.
Is there anything else you would like to discuss?
I want to see the BLM get more and more involved in science. I really would hope that the paleontology program can be an example of people going outside of the box. From range management to landscape scale conservation we should think outside of the box in everything we do!
This interview was completed by Rachel Wootton, NLCS and Heritage Resources summer intern, in August 2013, and originally posted on the BLM Daily.