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Posted: April 2, 2016

Fossil beds could lead to world-class museum

The author with a giant anemone located in the Elk Valley. The actual location is kept a secret so it will not be disturbed.
The author with a giant anemone located in the Elk Valley. The actual location is kept a secret so it will not be disturbed.

Perceptions by Gerry Warner

What would cause close to 150 Cranbrookians to gather in a crowded, if elegant, meeting room to listen to a lecture at a time when it’s hard to get a decent crowd out for a hockey game?

The answer? Fossils! I kid you not.

That’s what happened last Wednesday in the Royal Alexandra Hall where an unexpectedly large crowd gathered to hear Dr. Richard Hebda, Curator of Botany and Earth History at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria and one of the leading paleontologists in the province.

The title of Dr. Hebda’s lecture was “The Fabulous Fossils of B.C. and the Kootenays” and he soon made everyone aware that he wasn’t kidding, calling all of our province, but especially the Kootenays, one of the best “hot beds for fossils in the world.” And Cranbrook is right in the middle of it.

“We don’t know much about what we’ve got but what we’ve got already is amazing,” he said referring to local “rock smasher” Chris Jenkins, who’s been prowling the East Kootenay backcountry for over a decade and finding fossils millions of years old including trilobites, ammonites and other ancient creatures as well as dozens of previously unknown species.

Images from Burgess Shale
Images from Burgess Shale

Hebda calls fossils “heritage objects,” and says B.C. has the best recorded fossil finds in the world including the famous Cambrian Era Burgess Shale, a 550 million-year-old fossil bed in the Rockies near Field that many say is the most significant fossil bed on the planet.

Given our extensive treasure trove below the ground, we have a responsibility to be “good stewards” of our treasure and protect it from unnecessary exploitation, said Hebda, who called our local fossil beds “a shared global heritage” that helps to explain how primitive one-celled creatures without skeletons evolved into the rich tapestry of life that we know on earth today. And this is where things start to get interesting.

Burgess Shale fossilGuy Santucci, Cranbrook History Centre Board director, says Hebda is only the first of several top international scientists and paleontologists coming to town to speak this year on the world class status of the fossil beds surrounding Cranbrook and the implications of that in the future. Currently only a few of the highly-prized fossils are on display at the history centre. But things don’t have to stay that way, he says.

“Look, we can fill a room with old rocks and this will generate some interest, but when you put a sign out of town saying fossil museum every kid driving by with his parents is going to pull in and stop. Once they stop, we’ve got them hooked.”

Santucci says the fossils on display on the Trans Canada Highway at Field are only plaster casts of the Burgess Shale fossils. The Burgess Shale bed itself is barely accessible up a steep mountain trail and you have to hire a guide to visit it. But in Cranbrook these ancient harbingers of the earth’s history could be right in visitors’ faces and available for scientific research as well.

“So there’s an economic factor to this,” says Santucci, adding this has been in the back of his mind and other community members for a long time, but they haven’t wanted to say much up to now because it has seemed more like a dream. However, dreams sometimes come true.

“The interesting thing is we’ve been all out there independently digging around and the funny thing is we all had the same sort of vision that someday there would be a museum where we could put our stuff. There’s no use in it piling up in my back yard.”

A museum with a collection of fossils up to a billion-years-old would be a world-class institution and a major attraction for a town sorely looking for one. Santucci says the concept may sound far-fetched, but not impossible.

Former Kootenay-Columbia MP Jim Abbott has been very supportive of the concept for years and so has fossil-finder Jenkins who donated the collection now on display at the History Centre as has fossil-hunter Chris New of the city.

Now the challenge is to make the dream a reality.

Gerry Warner is a retired journalist, who has been called a fossil himself on occasion.

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