Public Lands Preserve More Than What's on the Surface

Inside a paleontology quest through Grand Staircase–Escalante and Deep Time

By Riley Black

June 21, 2021

Illustration of a woman hiking in a canyon in Utah

Illustrations by Cate Andrews

IT'S A STRANGE FEELING, knowing you could scream as loud as you wanted and no one would hear you. As the golden light of a late-September sun set on Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument's cracked junipers and seemingly endless hills of sandstone, I considered the option. Camp had to be somewhere nearby, but I had gotten off track. I couldn't spot any bright tents or curls of campfire smoke from the paleontology crew I was supposed to meet. My radio stayed silent as I treaded mile upon mile of high Utah desert, fearing wrenching an ankle, stepping on a Great Basin rattlesnake, or having to shiver through the night.

I checked my GPS and then the notebook where I had written the campsite's coordinates. Then my phone, then the GPS again. The shadows grew longer. I should have seen the other fossil hunters by now. Helicopter Camp was somewhere ahead, no more than 200 yards away. But all I could see was a small, flat-topped hill dotted with low shrubs—an indifferent piece of topography that would require hiking down, then up again to find out how truly lost I had become.

There had to be some bones for me in those millions of acres that would reward all the sunburn and the sweat.

I'd been to Grand Staircase–Escalante eight times before as a volunteer with paleontology field crews from the Natural History Museum of Utah. I knew the road I drove in on and the landscape I was crossing to meet the campers awaiting me. A few days prior, that lucky crew had been helicoptered in and deposited miles beyond the boundary of the two-track "road" leading up over Horse Mountain and Death Ridge. I, on the other hand, had drawn the proverbial short straw. While my tent and duffel were granted the privilege of the flight in, I had been given keys to the museum pickup, had driven four hours south from Salt Lake City, and had ground my way two hours deeper into one of the last places in the continental United States to be mapped—the wreck of a 75-million-year-old world. Here, in a vast wilderness that stretches more than 1.8 million acres down toward Arizona, dinosaurs wait patiently for someone to notice them.

IN 2010, THE YEAR BEFORE I packed up all my belongings and made the I-80 drive from New Jersey to Utah, paleontologists named eight new dinosaur species from Utah, most from Grand Staircase–Escalante. Utahceratops, Kosmoceratops, Teratophoneus, Hagryphus, Gryposaurus, Talos—these were just some of the saurian names I had memorized while daydreaming about wandering the outcrops and gullies of this distant place. Perhaps I'd kick over a rock that enclosed a beautiful piece of jaw or stop dead in my tracks upon spotting signs of the 40-foot alligator Deinosuchus.

Fossils are why I moved to the Beehive State, why I'd spent so much time sifting through academic papers' technical jargon, hoping to pick up new clues for the search. There had to be some bones for me in those millions of acres that would reward all the sunburn and the sweat.

Illustration shows a Southwestern scene with fossils buried beneath the earth.

I've been dinosaur-crazed since I was a child and have long dreamed of exploring lost worlds, but I didn't expect to find such a place in the center of the Four Corners. The American West is replete with fossil wonderlands, but Grand Staircase–Escalante remained a secret even as the famed Jurassic Morrison and Cretaceous Hell Creek Formations offered up Apatosaurus and Tyrannosaurus bones. Southern Utah wasn't anywhere close to the rail lines that acquisitive paleontologists relied on to ship tons of bones back East in the 19th century, and a lull in dinosaur science during much of the 20th century meant that few were interested in searching the high desert. Even the Mormon settlers who founded towns such as Hurricane and Kanab—today, your last stops for gas and groceries before leaving pavement—stayed around the edges of Grand Staircase–Escalante. Simply looking at the national monument, you can see why: The land almost vibrates with the sense that any attempt to tame or settle it would backfire.

MANY OF THE SAME PLACES that are good for fossils are also good for fossil fuels. This has precious little to do with dinosaurs, despite what the Sinclair logo might bring to mind. The stacked stone of Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument documents hundreds of millions of years, tracing back to when southern Utah was, at various points, a floodplain, an ocean, and a coastal swamp. During some such epochs, ancient vegetation was buried and compressed to become coal—an estimated 62 billion tons within the monument's original boundaries. Microorganisms from the bottom of the prehistoric sea, likewise, became oil. This nexus of the biological and geological almost led to the monument's undoing.

On December 4, 2017, President Donald Trump signed a proclamation nearly halving the size of Grand Staircase–Escalante, a historic reversal of the Antiquities Act, the 1906 law that governs national monuments. The move was a symbolic show of what the Trump administration termed "energy dominance." The flashy phrase remained nebulous. "Energy dominance gives us the ability to supply our allies with energy as well as to leverage our aggressors," said Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary at the time.

For decades, conservative politicians have believed that the West is being "lost" to the federal government, as the establishment of national parks and wilderness areas renders millions of acres off-limits to development. President Bill Clinton's creation of Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in 1996 left local politicians sore. President Barack Obama's designation of Bears Ears National Monument in 2016 left them fuming. Just months before Trump put pen to paper, then–Utah representative Rob Bishop proclaimed, "Bears Ears is a symptom of the problem. The disease is still the Antiquities Act." Bishop and his allies decried federal overreach, insisting that what Bears Ears, Grand Staircase, and other federal lands needed was local control. They made no secret that this was a push to grant fossil fuel leases, casting them as an income stream that would provide royalties to Utah's perpetually underfunded schools.

For all that rhetoric, fossil fuel companies were reluctant to take up leases on carved-out monument land. Under Trump, the Bureau of Land Management offered 24,000 acres of fossil fuel leases; only around 4,200 acres sold. Industry interest moved on, lawsuits were filed over mishandled BLM reviews, and on his second day in office, President Joe Biden issued a stay on fossil fuel leases on public land. The Right's grand plans for tapping further into Utah's energy deposits fizzled.

ALMOST ALL OF UTAH'S geological wonders, those high-desert landscapes filled with coyotes and rabbitbrush, exist because the southern and eastern parts of the state were shuddered upward onto the Colorado Plateau tens of millions of years ago. The entire plateau covers more than 130,000 square miles of the Four Corners, with deep canyons and peaks as high as 13,000 feet, giving the Southwest much of its character.

The high desert lives separate from our perceptions, something at once so grand and so detailed that our brains can take in only a fraction of what we're seeing in any moment.

If you had visited the area 75 million years ago, you would have found a warm, drenched place. Think Florida Everglades meets the vast Pantanal of Brazil. In the Cretaceous, southern Utah was a soggy coastal swamp on the margin of the great Western Interior Seaway—a shallow sea that split North America in two. There was plenty of sediment—mud, sand, and silt sloshed through the swamps—and all those little particles were enough to bury everything from tyrannosaurs to delicate palm fronds. Through those millions of years of deposition, while dinosaurs thrived and continents shifted, rock layers were nestling atop one another. Then, about 70 million years ago, the mountains of the West started getting pushed upward during the Laramide orogeny. Picture once-buried layers, shoved and cracked and jutted out from their resting places below the surface, seeing the light again after millions of years. Then erosion could do its thing. Sun, rain, ice, and wind all began to carve the exposed stone, creating arches and hoodoos and—fortunately for my fossil-fixated mind—uncovering pieces of prehistoric bone.

That evening in Grand Staircase, I didn't wish to become one of the skeletons left to the mercy of the desert. As the planet turned away from the sun, my radio finally crackled. I called back. Something motioned to me across the divide from the top of that indifferent hill. No, mountain lions don't wave. I let out a long exhale. I'd made it close enough to Helicopter Camp for the others to find me. I climbed up the hill and down the opposite slope to the duffel containing what I'd need to crash into deep and dreamless sleep.

Bones were on my mind when the sun started to turn my tent shell orange. Bones were on my mind as I shivered and rooted around for clean clothes. Bones were on my mind as I warmed myself by the fire and waited for our designated camp cook to finish making breakfast. Bones were on my mind as I switched out my sandals for boots and double-checked that I had everything I needed in my pack. The bones had to be out there. The geological maps confirmed I was in the right place, the right slice of deep time. Still, the prospect ahead of me was essentially finding a dinosaur in a giant haystack.

It's rare for a paleo camp to set up tents right on top of a dinosaur. Just digging down isn't going to give you more than sore muscles and sore questions about what led you to excavate a hole in the middle of nowhere. Instead, you walk. One foot in front of the other, over and over, until you come across something that looks a little funny. Maybe it's a different shape or color. It could even be an entire jaw glistening, teeth set as they were back in the Mesozoic. The point is, you rely on erosion to do the work for you. You're an outcrop inspector, your gaze on the ground in front of your feet as you try to pick out the most promising spots.

This entire landscape was carved out of the dinosaur-rich Kaiparowits Formation, meaning every exposed piece of stone carries the potential to reveal what life was like millions of years ago. I found a few pack rat bones, lots of harvester ants, and a sea of juniper trees. Each step seemed to confirm where dinosaur bones were not. But these things can't be rushed, and there truly is no telling what may rest in the next gully or rock face. Not long after an impromptu catnap beneath a gnarled juniper, I noticed the small twirl of a snail shell in a slab of maroon sandstone. Later, on a slope where my boot treads did very little good, I happened across the rounded cheek tooth of a crocodilian; this enamel-covered peg likely busted through turtle shells during the dinosaurian heyday. Bone fragments indicated where dinosaurs and turtles had once emerged from their rocky slumber to see the sunshine, only to be eroded down again—a sign I'd arrived decades or centuries too late.

I climbed outcrops that I wasn't sure I could get down from. I checked under overhangs. I dipped down into gullies to look for any tidbits the all-too-scarce desert rain might have washed up. I used muscles I didn't know I had, scrambling, huffing, and plodding across bare rock. All the while, I looked over my shoulder for the mountain lion that had left crisp paw prints in the sand of the wash I was traveling down.

I wish I could tell you that I found the dinosaur of my dreams on that trip. I did not, though another crew member found a promising toe bone. Its curvaceous shape matched that of a coelurosaur, part of a family of feathery dinosaurs that thrived in the Late Cretaceous. A colleague quickly identified the bone as that of a tyrannosaur, a carnivore from the genus Teratophoneus. But as we discussed around the campfire later, it could have come from an ostrich-like dinosaur called an ornithomimosaur or the beaky, parrot-like hagryphus. There wasn't enough to tell during that particular dig, though in time, additional finds in the same spot would confirm that the bone indeed belonged to a young tyrannosaur.

Envious as I was, no fossil hunter lasts long if they don't learn to find joy in the search. I remember happily hiking along dry washes, smiling at all the inventive ways plants anchored themselves in rocky canyon walls. I remember the dried-out skeleton of the range cow I happened across, a reminder of how life and death intertwine in these places. I remember silently watching the ancient starlight of the Milky Way bathing the prehistoric rocks that stretched into the sky.

FROM THE TIME I'd first set foot in this patch of high desert in 2010 through the years of field excursions that had followed, I'd felt like this fantastic boneyard belonged to me, that I was exercising my right to explore a wilderness left unpaved. But over time, being alone in the wilderness will change your heart, whether you like it or not. On recent digs, I'd feared that I was acting like the oil companies I want kept out, a colonist on stolen ground. It can feel wrong to repeatedly hike into someone else's ancestral lands searching for something that, with any luck, will be taken away to be placed in a museum.

But on this dig, after I almost literally lost myself, I felt drawn into Grand Staircase–Escalante's landscape in a new way, folded in much like the dinosaur fossils had been long ago. I wanted to keep hiking, keep looking, keep wondering what might be over the next hill and how it might fit into the ever-changing nature of this particular patch of our planet.

As I made my final, solo hike back out to where I'd parked the museum pickup, I spotted a mess of small crocodile bones. And within spitting distance of the vehicle, I stumbled across the broad, circular vertebrae of a duck-billed dinosaur. I didn't have time to do much else but take photos and notes, hoping the encasing rock might keep the bones safe until I returned. But even if I never do, this constantly changing landscape gave me what I needed most: a place to get lost and found.

The high desert lives separate from our perceptions, something at once so grand and so detailed that our brains can take in only a fraction of what we're seeing in any moment. I could spend the rest of my life hiking this immense wilderness and only find what would amount to a few flecks of sand on a beach. It's that unknown that's going to have me packing my boots and tent, all for the promise of what I wish to see but may never find. No museum exhibit can capture that; no dollar value can do it justice. Grand Staircase–Escalante is one of the last places in the world where we can jot "Here be dragons!" on the map and mean it. We need such places. To be on public land amid that invaluable natural history, with little more than a hunch of where to look, evokes one of the greatest joys I know—curiosity.

This article appeared in the Summer quarterly edition with the headline "Digging Deep in the Desert."

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