Pondering fossil possibilities over in Snowmass Village
While Snowmass Village ponders a permanent exhibit calling attention to the prehistoric animals discovered on its borders – some more than 43,000 years old, according to radiocarbon dating – Pitkin County has asked to be involved.Town officials and representatives of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science plan to meet this winter to discuss the economic potential of the resort’s new claim to fame, which seems to grow with each day the dig continues. On Thursday, a well-preserved piece of a sloth tooth was found in a newly discovered “bone bed.”On Tuesday, county commissioners discussed their role in what occurs outside the fossil dig.The county is an interested partner, said Commissioner George Newman. The bones of mammoths, mastodons and other animals recovered during excavation at Ziegler Reservoir, just west of Snowmass Village, were actually found in unincorporated Pitkin County, he noted.”It’s such a great, unique find for the entire community,” Newman said. “I think it’s important for us to be at the table to discuss the options.”Commissioner Patti Clapper suggested the county library in Aspen is “the perfect place” for a display of some sort, while Newman suggested the airport terminal. A series of photographs, if nothing else, might be appropriate, he said.The museum has agreed to prepare a cast of one of the unearthed animals, but some other entity is expected to take on the cost of putting it together, which town officials have been told could run $50,000 to $100,000.”We get one choice of the animal we think is most complete and most important,” said Kit Hamby, director of the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District.Excavating the reservoir is a district project, and Hamby estimated the cost to the district associated with the recovery of the fossils at roughly $30,000. He intends to refine that sum for a report to the district’s board on Nov. 22. The cost includes displays of the bones by district staff, 24-hour security at the fossil dig site and providing a heated tent over a mammoth – the first bones discovered at the site.The added cost is considered part of a “minor construction delay,” Hamby said, and relatively small in relation to the $3.5 million purchase price for the reservoir site and $6 million price to enlarge it. But, the district won’t be picking up the cost of assembling the cast of a mammoth skeleton, he predicted.The question for Snowmass Village, said Mayor Bill Boineau, is how to capitalize on what has been unearthed at the reservoir.”Is it something we can use to be an economic driver? That’s the basic question in my mind,” he said.Some sort of informational and educational exhibit seems appropriate, but where to put it and how to finance it are unanswered questions at this point, Boineau said.”There’s no pot of gold out there when you find these animals,” he said. “People say, it’s a million-dollar find. Well, there may be a million-dollar cost to it.””The big question is where the dollars are going to come from,” agreed county Commissioner Jack Hatfield, a Snowmass Village resident. “What it’s going to take is fundraising – for anyone involved.”
The fossil dig, where a museum crew has been scrambling for a month to find and remove as much as possible before winter sets in, continues to produce new finds even as the crew tries to wrap up the operation for the winter.Removal of a mastodon tusk Wednesday exposed a new bone bed, which the crew is working fast to exhume. It yielded the sloth tooth specimen, along with other bones. An arm bone from a Jefferson’s ground sloth – the first evidence of the animal ever found in Colorado – has already been recovered.The group is also working to remove as much as possible of the mammoth found a month ago – the first discovery at the site.Thursday’s news from the field also included preliminary results from carbon-dating of samples of a piece of wood found next to a mastodon skull in the lowest layer of the dig. The specimen didn’t have enough radioactive carbon 14 left in it to produce measurable results, meaning the lowest layers are more than 43,000 years old, according to the museum. Geology indicates the ancient lake bed that once existed at the site was formed about 120,000 years ago. That means the older fossils are between 43,000 and 120,000 years old, according to Dr. Kirk Johnson, museum vice president of research and collections and chief curator.Scientists have estimated bones found in higher levels at the site date back 12,000 to 15,000 years or so – from the end of the last Ice Age. The great range in the age of the fossils makes the site even more significant, Johnson said.Despite the ongoing discoveries, the museum expects to exit the reservoir by this weekend. Freezing ground is making continued work difficult, according to Johnson.”You get to the point of diminishing returns, when you’re damaging things more than preserving them,” he said.More than 200 fossils have been recovered; they are being taken to Denver for preservation and study.The water and sanitation district’s contractor, Gould Construction, has removed about 65,000 cubic yards of material from the reservoir, creating the capacity for about 240,000 acre feet of water, according to Hamby. What was an 11-acre reservoir has been enlarged to 15 acres, but only a portion of the site has been excavated to the depths where bones are being unearthed.The reservoir excavation, which has continued longer than expected this fall to assist scientists in their work, is nearly finished, Hamby said. It is about 95 percent complete, he said. Next year, some excavation and fill work needs to occur, and a new, earthen dam will be constructed.The museum has already indicated it will be back in the spring to continue its work. The digging, though, will be mostly volunteers armed with shovels, Johnson said.”We’re not planning on hiring contractors with bulldozers,” he said.Some in the community have asked why more excavation isn’t planned, given what’s been found thus far, Boineau acknowledged, but such work is an expensive proposition.”We can’t afford to dig for the sake of removing the bones,” Hamby said.”You try to find everything you can, but do you dig to China to find more?” Boineau mused. “At some point, you say enough … you leave what’s left there.”
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