Back in January, palaeontologists accused Utah officials of driving over a precious fossil site after dismantling a boardwalk nearby, possibly irreparably damaging 112 million-year-old dinosaur footprints and animal tracks. These ancient remnants are extremely delicate and cannot be easily seen, but contain more than 200 dinosaur tracks left by 10 distinct species.
The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) filed a cease-and-desist letter against the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Utah office, calling for the immediate halt of the destruction of Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite near Moab. Heavy machinery was being used to repair a wooden boardwalk for tourists. In doing so, it appeared a backhoe had driven over the important archaeological site.
Now, an investigation by the BLM itself has detailed the extent of the damage in a new report.
According to the Bureau itself, the site is “one of the most significant early Cretaceous tracksites in the world” and visitors should “avoid walking directly on the track-bearing surface at all times.” However, according to the report, "Construction crews impacted track-bearing surfaces directly east of the walkways with vehicles during the removal and loading of boardwalk palettes onto the trailer. As a result, trace fossils were damaged."
“I’m absolutely outraged that the BLM has apparently destroyed one of the world’s most important paleontological resources,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director at the CBD, in a statement.
“This careless disregard for these irreplaceable traces of the past is appalling. It really calls into question the Bureau’s competence as a land-management agency.”
In a statement sent to various media outlets back in January, including Gizmodo and Fox News, the Utah BLM said it is “committed to balancing resource protection and public access to the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite, and other public lands managed by the Moab Field Office, which continue to receive high visitation. The Moab Field Office is working to improve safe public access with an updated boardwalk that is designed to protect the natural resources of this site. During that effort, heavy equipment is on location, but it is absolutely not used in the protected area.”
The investigation now shows that heavy machinery had in fact driven over the tracksite, repeatedly. "Proximate to and along the northeastern side of the boardwalk an important crocodile slide track... is partially buried by sediment. Unfortunately, this trace was repeatedly driven over, as recent tire tracks indicate that this area was impacted by the backhoe and other vehicles. This trace fossil appears to have sustained some fracturing damage," the report states.
This location had apparently been cleared for vehicles, despite the tracks being known about and flagged. However, another section that also had known significant tracks and was not cleared for vehicle traffic was also impacted by vehicles used for the boardwalk renovations. Although the report says it's not clear if damage to the tracks was already existent and caused by weathering, the spot should have been flagged and avoided.
The site remains a unique slice of archaeological importance, and the BLM Utah wishes to continue to make it accessible to the public. In 2021, the BLM approved the replacement of the wooden boardwalk with a more durable concrete and steel replacement, though it is unclear whether the plans will continue in light of the recent supposed site destruction.
This isn't the first time drivers haven't given archaeological sites of unparalleled value their due respect. In February 2018, a truck driver allegedly ignored signs and drove across Peru's famous Nasca lines to avoid paying a toll. In March 2020, a pick-up truck was found crashed into one of Rapa Nui’s (Easter Island) famed moai statues, “seriously damaging” the important cultural relic.