The colossal fossil conundrum: Modern-day management at prehistoric site
Gordon Harvey is long gone, but his old homestead dwindles on, slowly returning to the earth near Driftwood Creek. In the early part of the last century, Harvey owned much of the land around here, including the fossil beds just downstream from his tiny cabin. Recognizing their significance, he generously donated the site to the provincial government. But he did so with a caveat.
In 1967, Harvey donated the land that would become Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park under the condition that its seemingly infinite fossil stashes would be open to collectors. Nearly 50 years later, Harvey’s request contravenes the Parks Act, which allows only researchers to collect fossils under permit, with fossils remaining the property of the provincial government.
“When he donated it to the province he asked that it remain open to fossil collection,” says Scott McMillan, Babine Area Senior Park Ranger with BC Parks in Smithers, outlining the dilemma Parks now faces. “We’ve got this moral obligation to Gordon Harvey on one hand, and on the other our obligation under the Parks Act.”
On a rainy afternoon in May, it’s hard to imagine this 23-hectare provincial park swarming with tourists. A small sign and picnic area in Driftwood Canyon, 13 kilometres from Smithers, mark the trailhead to the fossil beds. A recently upgraded, wheelchair-accessible trail winds through dark spruce and cottonwood; in this shady canyon, the seasons always seem to be a bit behind the rest of the valley.
After a couple hundred metres, the trail opens up at the base of a steep, loose slope leading to a crumbling shale outcrop. We’re at the viewing platform, where visitors can read signage about the area and gaze up at the cliff above. In theory, they are to go no further, and a sign requests as much.
Last summer the fossil beds saw over 7,000 visitors. Many comb the lower area for small fossil finds, but some are so brazen as to chip away at the cliff face above. As one of North America’s most significant fossil beds, the potential loss of scientific evidence concerns Parks staff, researchers, and some local residents.
Jim Senka is a 20-year resident of the Bulkley Valley. “To me, it’s a moral issue,” he says. “In this case, the issue is this important scientific data that could be lost forever.”
Senka says he knows people who have kept valuable fossils in their basements, their imprints fading over time. “I think it’s sad that people are unable to recognize the need for us all to have this knowledge.”
He would like to increase public knowledge about the value of the Driftwood fossil beds and possibly see a community group formed that would advocate for the area and assist in its management. “It would be wonderful if somebody wanted to take on that responsibility.”
Tiny details In the meantime, a 2001 report called The Fossils at Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park: A Management Plan for BC Parks outlines ways to preserve the area’s scientific integrity. Its first recommendation is to prohibit recreational fossil collecting in the Park—a measure that’s already in place, McMillan says.
Its second recommendation, that managed fossil collecting be permitted as part of an educational program, has been partially implemented through local school groups that visit the site in summer. Safety concerns, the need for an impact assessment, and the need for staff to monitor collection have prevented anything more formal from being put in place.
It’s estimated that thousands of significant fossils have already been taken from Driftwood, which is the northernmost cache in the Okanagan Highlands series of fossil beds, a 50-million-year-old chain of lakes that stretch from Republic, Washington to northern BC. The sites are known in scientific circles for their exceptional preservation: scientists have been able to see details as tiny as the hairs on a gnat.
Bruce Archibald, a paleontologist with the biological sciences department at Simon Fraser University, spends a couple weeks at the Driftwood site every summer. His specialty is insects, but he brings colleagues to explore the fossils from different angles. What’s most interesting, he says, is understanding the fossils in their environments and communities.
“There are a million questions to be answered coming out of this study system,” Archibald says. For instance, this region saw warmer temperatures with very little seasonality 50 million years ago, in contrast with today’s world where low seasonality exists only in tropical areas. Because there was a greater diversity of species here 50 million years ago, paleontologists believe the diversity is linked to low seasonality rather than heat. “It allows us to approach questions you can’t in a modern world.”
The site has produced Eosalmo driftwoodensis—the oldest known salmon species. Also discovered here is the prehistoric ancestor of today’s water strider, an insect commonly seen skittering across the surface of local lakes. Fifty million years ago, the water strider was almost identical to today, making it the oldest known insect that has changed so little.
Bones and skeletons Archibald’s perseverance allowed for the repatriation of one fossil: a bird so well preserved, its feathers were still visible. While visiting Smithers several years ago, Archibald visited the Bulkley Valley Museum, where a volunteer told him about an article she’d read about someone finding a bird at the site.
“My ears immediately picked up because bird material is really rare,” Archibald remembers. “Bones and skeletons are really something special.”
The woman went upstairs and returned with an old Interior News article that said Albrecht Klöckner, a resident of Germany, had discovered the bird in 1970. It was a long shot, but Bruce went looking for the Klöckners.
“I looked around on the Internet for that last name in the Smithers area and I got a hit,” he says. “I spoke to a woman who was very nice and she said, ‘Yes, it’s my relative and they’re still alive and in Germany—here’s their number.’”
When they were contacted, the Klöckners felt it was time the avian fossil was returned to British Columbia. It remains today at the Royal BC Museum.
“Local people don’t often know what a resource they have, and it’s really something for them to be proud of,” says Archibald, who will be working at the Driftwood site in June.
“Paleontologists are not the stereotypical dry scientists,” he adds. “We also get excited and feel the mystery of it all, seeing the rocks and knowing there’s a big story in there.”
Looking up at the shale cliffs, their layers stacked like books in a library, it’s hard not to imagine what secrets lie ensconced in the rock. McMillan approaches holding two flakes that have delicate fern-like designs mirroring one another. It’s an example of “part and counterpart”: 50-million-year-old ecology sandwiched and duplicated between layers of stone.
I begin to search the rocks at my feet. Some fall apart easily, like a book revealing ancient secrets held for eons. The thought that they are seeing daylight for the first time in over 50 million years fascinates me and I continue searching. I can easily see how this could become addictive.
“The popularity exists already,” McMillan acknowledges, hoping that by promoting the significance of the site, it will gain more respect. “We think if Gordon Harvey recognized just how significant the fossils are he would support our approach and how we’re managing it.”