VICTORIA — You might call it a paleontologists’ playground.
A team of researchers has discovered a field of untouched fossilized dinosaur remains near Tumbler Ridge, B.C., proving that giant plant- and meat-eating prehistoric animals roamed northeastern British Columbia millions of years ago.
But the elation over the dramatic discovery — much of which was just sitting on the surface — is dampened by the provincial government’s Stone Age attitude toward protecting and promoting heritage lands, artifacts and projects.
Paleontologist Richard McCrea and his four-person research team made the discovery last month during a three-day expedition into a remote forested area in B.C.’s Peace River area.
The results were promising, McCrea said, with up to 150 kilograms of fossilized dinosaur remains found on the surface, there was no digging required.
“We have bones from plant-eating dinosaurs and we have some bones from large meat-eating dinosaurs, probably a tyrannosaur,” he said.
“We did a sweep and the indications are pretty good we probably have quite a lot of bones in that area,” said McCrea. “We could possibly start two excavations in two widely separated areas we had explored. Things look promising.”
But McCrea doesn’t want to reveal too many details about his discovery, because British Columbia has no laws that protect such finds.
He often identifies himself as a geologist looking for coal seams when he comes across other hikers, over concerns they could damage or take advantage of a sensitive fossil area.
“This is the only province in the country with a substantial paleontological heritage that does not have legislation, does not support institutions or projects,” McCrea said. “Essentially, British Columbia has no infrastructure for handling this at all.”
McCrea — who has lobbied the government to introduce protection legislation similar to Alberta’s heritage law which includes fines and jail terms — said the B.C. government doesn’t want to spend the money and doesn’t want to deter potential resource investors.
“That idea should have died with the dinosaurs,” he said. “Industry will meet whatever criteria the government comes up with.”
McCrea said he’s currently working with a wind-power company in the Tumbler Ridge area that has already developed a protocol to protect possible dinosaur sites found near its wind turbines.
B.C. Agriculture and Lands Minister Steve Thomson said the province has recently completed a public consultation process examining the management of fossil sites.
“The province is working towards closing the regulatory gap on managing B.C.’s fossils,” said Thomson in a statement to The Canadian Press. “We’re aware that British Columbians want measures in place that balance social, environmental and economic values of fossils when land use decisions are made.”
Thomson’s statement said his ministry is working with agencies, stakeholders and the academic community to identify the elements needed for management of B.C.’s fossil heritage.
A report on the fossil management framework will soon be posted to the Ministry’s website, but no date is provided.
McCrea, who has been part of the fossil management process, said British Columbia must do more to protect and preserve its large and yet undiscovered fossil reserves.
“British Columbia has a massive paleontological heritage,” he said. “It’s fairly widely recognized and it’s pretty well known, except in British Columbia. A lot of B.C. specimens grace the museums all around the world. Several in the U.S., some in England and plenty in Western Canada. Alberta and Ontario both have a pretty large collection of B.C. specimens.”
University of Victoria history Prof. John Lutz said British Columbia lags behind much of Canada when it comes to heritage protection.
He was part of a group representing heritage academics and organizations, museums and archivists that discussed drafting a B.C. heritage policy five years ago.
The group said the province needs legislation to protect fossils, landscapes and sacred sites, and must develop policy to deal with cultural and heritage property, but little has been done, he said.
It led Lutz to speculate the B.C. government doesn’t want to spend the money on heritage protection and fears antagonizing potential investors.
“We are on the cheap side when it comes to that, and I think our government is still of the mentality that small government is better and that left to its own resources the free market will take care of things that are important,” said Lutz.
But he said heritage legislation has two huge benefits: it protects cultural history and is good for business because it promotes tourism.
The Tumbler Ridge area’s member of the legislature agrees that heritage, especially dinosaurs, are good for tourism.
The Peace Region’s Paleontology Research Centre, a decommissioned elementary school turned museum, offers a world-class dinosaur exhibits with bones gathered from the Tumbler Ridge area, said Blair Lekstrom, and MLA and former Liberal cabinet minister.
“The work they are doing is amazing,” Lekstrom said. “Not only for Tumbler Ridge and the Peace region, but our entire province.”
He said heritage protection is an important part of B.C.’s economic future. This is an issue of provincial significance, and the province, hopefully, will see its way to find some way to fund this,“ Lekstrom said.
McCrea said the volunteer-operated paleontology research centre will run out of funds within a month because its annual grant from Tumbler Ridge’s municipal government was cut to $152,000 from $200,000 this year.
McCrea said he’s on the verge of helping unearth a major fossil dinosaur find in what amounts to his backyard, but a slow-moving government is restricting a potential cultural and economic windfall.
“We’re picking up the slack,” he said. “We have this amateur volunteer organization that’s taken on what should be a provincial responsibility and we’re doing a damn good job with the few resources we have.”