Track Stars: The St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site Fossils
by Thomas Farley / firstname.lastname@example.org
Sheldon Johnson wasn’t looking for dinosaur tracks, he was just trying to flatten a hill. What the eye doctor found, though, was certainly eye opening. That Utah hill is now the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm. It is a world class locality preserving an entire Jurassic ecosystem. Say hello to the land of dinosaurs.
St. George is located in southwest Utah. It’s 119 miles from Las Vegas and 302 miles from Salt Lake City. People flock to St. George to visit nearby Zion National Park and Bryce. At Zion, cliffs of red and white Navajo sandstone dominate. At Bryce Canyon National Park, natural amphitheaters and distinctive geological features called hoodoos populate the area. Southwest Utah is a wonderland for geologists. And paleontologists.
The history of the St. George Discovery site begins in 1992. That’s when the city of St. George built a road extension through Dr. Johnson’s alfalfa farm. The finished road sat 25 to 30 feet lower than an adjoining hill. Sometime in 1998, Johnson began lowering the hill with heavy equipment. He wanted to eventually meet the grade of the road. Once done, his roadside property could be more easily developed. He was moving forward with this work when he hit layers of sandstone.
The overlapping plates of sandstone couldn’t be scooped up and dumped like loose dirt. Instead, he had to split up layers with his track hoe. For many months he sold the blocky pieces for landscaping use. One day a piece flipped upside down, revealing a large natural cast of a dinosaur foot. Dr. Johnson immediately contacted the correct authorities, including his stepson, Kelly Bringhurst, a geology professor at nearby Dixie State College.
Paleontologists and geologists converged on Dr. Johnson’s farm and all agreed he had made a major discovery. Trace fossils abounded on the hill and on land around his property. The site had to be preserved. Three years of private fundraising ensued. State and federal grants were sought. Finally, the Johnsons partnered with the City of St. George to protect the land and build the museum you see today.
In addition to preservation and education, continuing research is a vital part of the museum’s mission. Material from all over southern Utah comes in to be examined. Look for the museum’s lab at the back of the building. Behind sliding glass windows, volunteers and staff clean and otherwise work on fossils. Ask any guide if you have questions about what they are doing.
The Saint George Dinosaur Discovery site or SGDS is an invaluable resource for rockhounds, amateur geologists, dinosaur enthusiasts, and kids of all ages. It is a place to look, study, and in some cases touch dinosaur tracks and fossils. This opportunity is usually unavailable. Vertebrate collecting on public land is strictly prohibited. This means any fossil with a skeleton of cartilage or bone. Only scientists connected to paleontology get the necessary permits to collect vertebrates. At St. George you can see body fossils and trace fossils that are ordinarily off limits.