Dinosaurs & Coal – a lasting partnership

The following is based on a presentation by the President of the Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation, Dr Charles Helm, to the recently held Coal Forum in Tumbler Ridge.

It is just five years since two local boys discovered dinosaur tracks just below Tumbler Ridge and set off ?dino fever?, which led to the formation of the Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation (TRMF). In these years, not only have discoveries kept pouring in, including hundreds of dinosaur bones and footprints and many other outstanding fossils, but federal and local funding have allowed the development of the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre. This houses a modern collections area and preparation lab, and is home to the only two vertebrate palaeontologists in BC, Rich McCrea and Lisa Buckley. The BC Dinosaur Discovery Gallery will soon add another dimension to this activity, as a year round publicly accessible display venue. The Museum Foundation?s aim is simple, to enable the building of a museum in Tumbler Ridge of a standard and uniqueness that will be an international drawcard.

When the first generation of coalmines closed, and the local economy imploded, this activity kept Tumbler Ridge on the front page of national news, in a positive light, and offered a road to economic diversification. Tourist numbers increased thanks to this work and the Wolverine Nordic and Mountain Society?s hiking trail system.

However, it was realized at that time that pursuing this path to diversification would take years. The revitalization of the economy with the new mines and increased natural gas activity in the region therefore offered a welcome break to the Museum Foundation, allowing the necessary time for the museum ?product? to be developed at a manageable pace. If coal and gas prices decrease again, a diversified Tumbler Ridge economy will then be better able to survive.

The mines can also benefit the museum and the community in unexpected ways. The Cretaceous coal beds which are mined in the Tumbler Ridge area are the remains of the swampy forests in which the dinosaurs roamed. Close by were often sandy beaches and mudflats, and it is there that the dinosaurs left their footprints and trackways. It is therefore not surprising that fossilized footprints are often found close to the coal beds.

In the past, mining companies that were aware of these fossil treasures would sometimes destroy them without reporting them, apparently out of a concern that the mines could be shut down for scientific studies. In this more enlightened age, things are very different. Rich McCrea, as western Canada?s dinosaur footprint authority, has worked with numerous coal mines in B.C. and Alberta, to the benefit of both science and the mining community. Without interfering significantly with the functioning of the industry, the sites are recorded and where possible, footprints are quickly collected or casts made, after which the mining resumes. In return, the mines get huge positive publicity for this pro-active approach. It must be remembered that were it not for the mining activity, these priceless examples of our fossil heritage would never be unearthed in the first place.

A good recent local example of co-operation between the TRMF and industry is at a CNRL well site, where a wall of potentially hundreds of large dinosaur footprints was discovered in 2003. CNRL has agreed that once the operation of this well is completed in a few years, the company will work with the TRMF to expose and research this site.

This spirit of co-operation and the resulting potential win-win situations for the community are being embraced by the second generation of Tumbler Ridge mines. NEMI has already provided a financial donation and numerous fossil discoveries. It has also requested, and received, advice from the TRMF palaeontologists for its work force, in terms of what to look for and report. For its part Western Canadian Coal is involved in continuing discussions with the Museum Foundation on how to assist in the most meaningful way in the long term.

This promising situation transcends traditional interests, and sustains an amazing vision for Tumbler Ridge and its future prosperity: as the coal leaves the area, and the mines live out their predicted lifespan, they nonetheless leave behind a permanent legacy for the community in the form of a unique fossil story and a museum that would transform Tumbler Ridge into a renowned destination, with benefits to the region and province. This vision is exciting and achievable, with a combination of local passion, professional palaeontologiical expertise, and political will.