It is no accident that the proposed Peace Region Museum of Natural History, with its focus on palaeontology, will be built in Tumbler Ridge, ?in the Heart of Northeast Coal?. For the coal that is mined is the slow-cooked remains of the Cretaceous forests in which the dinosaurs roamed some time before their mass extinction. The coal seams often alternate with layers of sandstone and mudstone, remnants of the marshy or sandy shores beside the forests, and it is here that we find many of the dinosaur footprints and trackways that have recently become so synonymous with Tumbler Ridge.
In Tumbler Ridge we lucked out in attracting the attention of Canada?s acknowledged expert in dinosaur footprints, Rich McCrea, as well as Lisa Buckley, one of the only BC-born palaeontologists with expertise in dinosaur bones. Together this couple, employed by the Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation, have in the past six years begun studying this new ?resource?, and their field work has often taken them into the local mines.
McCrea has had extensive similar experience in Alberta. In the coal mine near Grande Cache he studied twenty-five dinosaur tracksites exposed by mining activity. One of these walls contained over ten thousand footprints! Similarly, in south-eastern BC, Elk Valley Coal has called upon the expertise of the TRMF scientists in identifying and interpreting some remarkable footprints and trackways in their coal mines.
Gone are the days when the discovery of dinosaur footprints in a coal mine prompted a cover-up for fear of the mine being shut down. McCrea has developed a pragmatic approach, recognizing that the footprints likely would never have been exposed were it not for the mining, and asking just for a limited window of opportunity in which to analyze and photograph the new finds and, if need be, take some footprint specimens back to the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre in Tumbler Ridge. In turn, in the ensuing press releases, a lot of positive publicity is generated for the coal mine.
Management at the NEMI mine requested in 2006 that the workforce receive instruction from these palaeontologists as to what to be aware of and look for during mining operations. Soon afterwards word was received of a headwall that had been exposed containing a series of dinosaur trackways, later identified by the palaeontologists as having been made by ankylosaurs. Geologist Kevin Sharman was responsible for this discovery, and he has put his knowledge of rocks and fossils to good use on numerous occasions. While still working for the Quintette Mine he discovered a superb palaeo-surface containing within its beautiful ripplemarks a stunning collection of starfish trace fossils. And he also shared his knowledge of rock layers within the mine harbouring plant fossils like redwoods and cycads, and a foot-wide bedding plane containing millions of clams.
During the period of formation of the TRMF, the Quintette and Bullmoose mines provided display cabinets and other materials for use in exhibits, and donated memorabilia and other items. The new generation of coal mines has also realized the potential value of the museum to the community and region: NEMI has provided cash donations, and Ledcor specifically provided $7000 of funding for the dinosaur murals that adorn the exterior walls of the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery. Western Canadian Coal is currently considering a major funding proposal from the TRMF.
One of the TRMF exhibits in the Community Centre celebrates the contribution of the first generation of mines to the town and the region through a series of photographs. The single low point in this story was when the magnificent set of doors that had graced the entrance to the Quintette ?glass palace? was removed to a distant venue, against the wishes of the community of Tumbler Ridge. They may have formed an ideal entrance to the proposed museum in Tumbler Ridge. Perhaps it is not just wishful thinking to hope that one day they will return to where they rightfully belong.
The interesting and developing relationship between the TRMF?s fossils and the coal companies? fossil fuels forms an evocative image. As the coal gets mined and leaves the region, it exposes this new resource, one which Tumbler Ridge is uniquely poised to use by virtue of the Museum Foundation and its employees – a resource which is sustainable and will diversify the economy, promote scientific knowledge, and develop the tourism industry. This is truly a ground-breaking initiative, with the potential to transcend conventional wisdom, and create a climate in Tumbler Ridge that values both industry and tourism, celebrates the power of mining while cherishing the capacity of the dinosaurs to evoke a sense of wonder and awe, and appreciates both fossils and fossil fuels.