Paleontologist to the Rescue!

Construction site on the way to Marsh Hill. Photo by Sheila Alfsen. 

Construction site on the way to Marsh Hill. Photo by Sheila Alfsen. 

Synopsis of Friday night lecture on July 8, 2016, with speaker Sheila Alfsen, 

by Carol Hasenberg

GSOC Past President Sheila Alfsen described her experiences working as an onsite paleontologist on construction sites for Paleontology Associates, a company run by Oregon paleontologist Dr. William Orr for more than 15 years. 

Paleontology Associates was created to address the need for preserving important fossil finds on government property when they are threatened by construction projects. This is covered by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Act of 1969. Construction projects covered by the act must have a biologist, archaeologist and paleontologist. Each project must have an environmental impact statement (EIS) which contains a report of the paleontological survey for the site. 

The paleontological survey is done to determine the need for attention from the paleontologist. First, the paleontologist will research the site to see if it contains any known fossil bearing strata and determine precise locations of known fossil locations in the vicinity. The construction site will be assigned a level of risk that incorporates the existence of strata and their exposure to the construction. For Federal and State of Oregon projects, the site will be classified as needing no monitoring, spot monitoring, or continuous monitoring. The US Forest Service has a similar system but classifies sites by 5 different levels of attention. The onsite monitoring must be done by a trained paleontologist or under his/her supervision. The paleontologist must also be associated with a repository for the fossils (a recognized museum or collection). 

Horizontal drilling under the dairy. Photo by Sheila Alfsen

Horizontal drilling under the dairy. Photo by Sheila Alfsen

Alfsen described her job as onsite paleontologist as a person who is “construction minded” and coordinates activities to lessen the impact on the schedule and cost of the construction project. Such a field representative must have the experience to recognize important finds quickly and dismiss lesser interruptions in the work. They must also be able to instill in the construction workers a professional pride in finding and preserving important fossils as a part of their work. In fact, it is the equipment operators who can sense finds in their excavations, so their engagement in the process is essential. 

Alfsen told the GSOC audience that the projects she has been involved with are greatly varied. She has looked at power plant sites, power lines, gas pipelines, fiber optics, highways and bridges and sewers. Pipeline projects are pretty common. One of the pipeline projects utilized horizontal drilling. The contractor was able to drill completely under a wetland and a dairy! Another gas line between Utah and Wyoming passed close to Dinosaur National Monument. It passed through the Jurassic Morrison Formation that outcrops in the park. Yet another went through Marsh Hill of Cope and Marsh fame, the competing geological pioneers of the nineteenth century. 

Alfsen’s next example was of a sewer project proposed to pass through the San Onofre Breccia on a headland overlooking Laguna Beach, California. No access to the site was granted from the gated community above who were proposing to build the sewer, so an exploratory field trip was planned at low tide to go around the headland. 

There are many challenges to the job of onsite paleontologist. It is important to educate the construction workers about the types of fossils that may be encountered. Also, safety must be emphasized as that will trump the fossil find if there is a conflict. Managerial attitudes may need to be addressed, and training sessions must be repeated often as new hirelings will need to be trained. 

Don’t run over the tortoise! Photo by Sheila Alfsen. 

Don’t run over the tortoise! Photo by Sheila Alfsen. 

Other complications to the job include awareness between site biology, archaeology and paleontology. For example, in the Mojave Desert, paleontologists and construction crews must be trained to work with the desert tortoise, California’s state reptile. This animal likes to shelter under your vehicle if left in the open for more than a few minutes, and huge fines are imposed if you run over one. The babies of these large tortoises are teeny-weeny, so every time you drive off you need to scan very completely under your vehicle. 

Yet another challenge to the job is that the laws were written by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and so they overemphasize that specialty, and there are poorly written specs for the identification and handling of other types of fossils, like plants and marine fossils. 

Stabilizing dinosaur remains. Photo by Sheila Alfsen. 

Stabilizing dinosaur remains. Photo by Sheila Alfsen. 

So what kinds of fossils has Alfsen found on these construction sites? Finds include dinosaurs, amphibians, turtles, big bisons from the Ice Age, mollusks, and Green River insects (see the previous newsletter). Steps to salvage these fossils are a decision on whether and how to preserve them, documentation, stabilization, extraction, curation, and repository. All in a day’s work for this important job!