Making the Case for BC’s Fossils at a Provincial Level

Charles Helm
 
In September 2012 Rich McCrea and I made a presentation in Victoria on behalf of the Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation (TRMF) to the annual meeting of the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM). Out of approximately a 100 applications, 15 diverse topics were selected, and ours was fortunate to be among those chosen.
 
In 2009, following communication between the TRMF and the Peace River Regional District (PRRD), the PRRD proposed the following resolution: 
 
WHEREAS the province of British Columbia has a growing quantity of marine and terrestrial vertebrate paleontological remains; 
AND WHEREAS there is no proper facility to house, display or provide research opportunities for this material in British Columbia:
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Union of BC Municipalities lobby the Province of British Columbia for a facility to preserve, protect, study and display our valuable paleontological resource.
 
This resolution was unanimously passed (2009-B178), and received special commendation through being designated a “Gold Star Resolution”. It should be noted that this resolution did not specify any particular location; instead, it simply introduced the concept of such a facility. The provincial government is expected to respond to such UBCM resolutions. The response, when received, merely indicated the province’s awareness of work being done in a number of facilities, and made no further effort to act in the spirit of the resolution. 
 
Our 2012 presentation came with the following preamble: 
 
The Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre (PRPRC) in Tumbler Ridge employs the only vertebrate palaeontologists in BC. Ten years in, we have made significant progress, reversing the historical trend of the finest fossil specimens leaving BC, amassing substantial collections from diverse sites, and exhibiting this heritage in the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery. However, limited funding challenges our ability to continue. UBCM members endorsed resolution 2009-B178, to establish an institution to preserve, study, and share BC’s vertebrate fossil heritage. With the scientists, space, experience, and will to explore this heritage, we propose that our facility becomes a provincial repository for vertebrate fossils.

In the presentation we argued that the necessary attributes of such a repository include:
 
1) qualified palaeontologists
2) sufficient space
3) political will
4) secure funding
 
In addition, we cited a research program, educational programming, guided tours, outreach and annual symposia as other desirable criteria.
 
We noted that the PRPRC is already acting as a de facto provincial repository, through fielding calls from across the province, providing assistance and expertise where possible to preserve, cast or stabilize internationally significant specimens, and being recognized by such diverse groups as BC Parks and industry. We further noted that in Tumbler Ridge we possessed all the necessary attributes other than secure funding. However, if such provincial recognition were to materialize, using the examples of other provinces, this could bring with it adequate funding to maintain basic operational expenses. 
 
Our achievements thus far have happened with the help of volunteers, private donations, remarkable municipal funding, regional district funding, industry support, and federal funding. Provincial funding to date has been minimal and we have not been able to engage the provincial government in meaningful discussion about the need to help preserve this heritage, despite the steady support of our MLA. In the other provinces of Canada with a significant vertebrate palaeontological heritage or in similarly fortunate USA states, such an invaluable resource is traditionally regarded as predominantly a provincial / state responsibility, and worldwide there are innumerable examples of governments that have recognized the enormous importance of this aspect of their history (China and South Korea form two obvious examples). 
 
We do indeed need to ask, and ask publicly, why it is that we live in the province which is the odd-one-out in North America, and why such minimal value is accorded to our palaeontological heritage, especially when contrasted with the abundant support provided, and recognition given, to our province’s equally superb archaeological heritage. In British Columbia there is a definite precedent of the government funding heritage projects of extreme importance to the province (such as the Haida Heritage Centre). We can legitimately ask why this does not apply to palaeontology.
 
Our message was straightforward:
 
1) we are dealing with a priceless heritage of international value, 
2) we have made remarkable progress over the past decade, but our ability to continue without adequate funding is threatened, 
3) such support should be in large part a provincial responsibility, 
4) we ask UBCM to build upon its 2009 motion by calling for such support to be provided to our facility in Tumbler Ridge.
 
Our presentation was enthusiastically received. We noted with incredulity that such a situation could have been allowed to develop in the province we cherish. We were not in a position to put forward a resolution, so we simply made the case in our presentation. However, the road is now open for such a resolution to be proposed in 2013.
 
To put it bluntly and briefly, there is only one province that can lay claim to the largest marine vertebrate fossils in the world (Shonisaurus sikannensis  from north of Fort St John), and only one province that can lay claim to the planet’s most important fossil site (the Burgess Shale). 
 
We live in that province, and with a provincial election approaching, it is time for us to make the case for what our province and its citizens deserve in this regard from our provincial government.