John Day Fossil Beds National Monument Spotlights Calcification in Congress

Welcome to Day #217 of our "365 Parks in 365 Days" adventure.


Welcome back, America's government and all who serve within her! A special BIG WELCOME BACK to my beloved friends in the National Park Service, the Forest Service and the world . . . I feel as if our country is breathing again, the fiscal cliff averted.


 Look what we own - this incredible formation is in the Sheep Rock Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon. Facebook Photo.


Last week I had the thought that if some people could find a way, they'd try to sell us the air we breathe. A frisson of alarm went through me when a friend mentioned that there's a conversation going on about privatizing our national parks, and I pray to God that it fizzles as so many similar conversations have fizzled over the years. In the past week Forbes Magazine and The American Spectator have carried articles advocating that. As multi- continental corporations train their focus on resource extraction, our public lands will find their protections tested over and over. But s/he who would give away his birthright for "a mess of pottage" deserves the mess s/he gets.


 I like to quote Ken Burns in his introduction to The National Parks: America's Best Idea, when he said that were it not for the foresight of our predecessors, today the Grand Canyon might be accessible only to the wealthy and powerful. The idea of a sign at the Grand Canyon saying "The Grand Canyon National Park brought to you by..." would be an insufferable abomination. 


The national parks and our public lands already belong to us, and in my opinion, turning them over to private management would show our nation to be unworthy its good fortune, in the words of President Teddy Roosevelt. No one needs "bring us" what we already own. As Frank wrote in our Pickup & GO! years ago, "our national parks and forests belong to us....they are not gifts of industry . . ."


 Can you believe this actually exists? I haven't seen it yet but I know from experience in Death Valley and similarly vivid parks that an image hardly does it justice. Wiki Photo.


My greatest comfort is that if this conversation raises its ugly head now, it will be joined by a much larger segment of the American people than ever before. And we understand that what's at stake is our most foundational value, the one that differentiates us from monarchies etc that hold lands off limits for the benefit of the American people, present and future. Corporations are increasingly playing a role in our electoral politics, so it is not unlikely that they could seek to abrogate our rights to our natural treasures.


In a hearing yesterday on Capitol Hill some members of Congress excoriated National Park Service Director for closing the parks during the shutdown and called for his resignation. Huh? Talk about misplaced culpability.


  In happier times, NPS Director Jon Jarvis meets my guest Sade Demery, a member of the Bridge to Tomorrow leaders at, at NPCA's Annual Dinner last year.


 One of our most trusted and admired friends on earth who also testified at the hearing told me, 


"Audrey: I estimate that I have done about 200 Congressional hearings as the lead witness for the NPS. I have never witnessed the kinds of personal attacks that Jon had to endure today. Here's a guy trying to manage a complex system that literally extends beyond the international date line, and that has only been shut down for this length of time once before. None of it is his doing. He did a great job. It depresses me to think that this is the best we can do at problem solving at this tiny but so important part of our government, but even more importantly that part of our heritage expressed in place. I wish I had had more time to support Jon but as a witness you can't control the flow of testimony...the punch line could have been, "NPS employees get over 90% support ratings based on annual in park surveys. How are you guys doing?'



Like every other human being on this landscape, writer Heather Lockman feels small and insignificant, yet timeless and belonging.


 In another happy twist of fate, my friend and fellow author Heather Lockman  sent me a link to her blog about her visit to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, and gave me permission to use it. Thank you soo much, Heather!  It seems presciently appropriate on a day when we celebrate the end of a period of fossilization (Democracy or Gerontocracy Is Congress getting older?) on Capitol Hill. And I will resist the metaphor about the average age of our leaders in the House and Senate versus the average age of  our population.


Lead on, Heather!


"I'm not supposed to admit this, but there was a moment during my visit to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument-as the trail petered out unexpectedly in an eerie blue landscape of columns and spires, where nothing but scattered tufts of grass looked even slightly familiar-when I thought, a little uneasily, of the classic cult cowboy/dinosaur film The Valley of Gwangi.


"This is not what scientists think of while hiking through 40 million years of fossil-studded geology in the dry lands of eastern Oregon. Presumably they think hard science thoughts like "Cenozoic Era" and "most complete fossil record of life from the Age of Mammals found anywhere in the world."  


"Valley of Gwangi is not science. It's Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (or an early version of Jurassic Park) set in the sagebrush desert of the North American West. It's fantasy, not paleontology. Still, in the strange blue universe along the wild John Day River, long-extinct ancient animals felt startlingly close.


Staff at this park obviously enjoy their work as this image from the park's Facebook Page shows.


"Not dinosaurs-there were no dinosaurs here. Oregon was still underwater when dinosaurs roamed the earth. The fossils in this remote region speak of the staggering proliferation of those warm-blooded, live-birthing beings we've come to know as mammals. Saber-toothed beasts (some cat-like, some not). Early rhinos and horses. A creature with a head like a beaver and a body like a long-legged deer, gone from the face of the planet now-but only after hanging on for 30 million years. Humans, by comparison, have 28 million years to go to reach that same mark of success.


"It's almost impossible not to feel fleeting and insignificant against a huge statistic like that. Our history is a mere a blip on the screen compared to that of most of the mammals preserved in the rocks at John Day.


:On the other hand, as far as we know, ancient animals didn't ponder the fact of their own existence. Unlike homo sapiens, the saber-tooths and the beaver-heads didn't spend a lot of time brooding about the fact they would one day be gone.


:But if humans are the only creatures aware of their own mortality, we are also the only species aware of the passing of ages. Surely that obliges us to sit up and pay attention, to understand where we came from and where we are likely headed. To remember, make note of, and learn what we can from the short course of human history, however puny that span may seem in geological terms.


:It's not all rhino and bear-dog bones at the John Day Fossil Beds Monument. In the river basin below Sheep Rock stands an old ranch house and a weathered barn, green fields and an aging orchard. The historic Cant Ranch-now used as park headquarters-stands in the shadow of  rust-colored pictographs left by American Indian people before the sheep ranchers came. Cultural fossils, both of them, with real human stories to tell.


"Indians, sheep ranchers, park rangers, tourists-visitors, all of us, just passing through. We're the thin recent layer, the dust at the top, the strange upright beasts with the brains and the need to make sense of the world around us.


"By golly, at least we should try."


Thank you Heather! Maybe we'll start today by beginning to work toward a sustainable economic framework so we don't have to go through this trauma ever again. Incidentally, the Park Service website is not back yet so I found these details at Wikipedia


"John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is a U.S. National  Monument in

 Wheeler and Grant counties in east-central Oregon. Located within the John Day River basin and managed by the National Park Service, the park is known for its well-preserved layers of fossil plants and mammals that lived in the region between the late Eocene, about 44 million years ago, and the late Miocene, about 7 million years ago. The monument consists of three geographically separate units: Sheep Rock, Painted Hills, and Clarno.

"The units cover a total of 13,944 acres (5,643 ha) of semi-desert shrublands, riparian zones, and colorful badlands. About 125,000 people visit the park each year for outdoor activities such as hiking and sightseeing or to visit the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center or the James Cant Ranch Historic District."


 If you've missed any of our "365 Parks in 365 Days" adventures, find them here  (Archive) Pick up your indispensable copy of "Our True Nature" while you're on my website. If you don't have it, you can't know what you're missing....


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