UW News

April 2, 2013

Book focuses on 1969 fight to save America’s premier fossil beds

News and Information

In the summer of 1969, the Federal District Court in Denver heard arguments in one of the nation’s first explicitly environmental cases, one trying to halt real estate developers intent on turning land containing an “extraordinary set of ancient fossils” into a housing development.

So starts the book “Saved in Time: The Fight to Establish Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado co-written by University of Washington biology professor emeritus Estella Leopold, who was a key player in the process.

Five people gather around the base of a large petrified stump twice as tall as they are

Estella Leopold (to right of stump) and visitors stand by what’s called the “Big Stump” in this newspaper photo from 1969. Estimated to weigh 60 tons, the petrified stump is from the extinct redwood, Sequoia affinis.Denver Post

“Your Honor, to allow building of summer homes on 34 million year-old fossils like these is like using the Dead Sea Scrolls to wrap fish in,” proclaimed the lawyer defending Florissant at the time.

Leopold and her friends filed court cases four times that summer to hold the line while Congress and finally President Richard Nixon acted on a bill establishing the monument.

Leopold answered a few questions about the book, co-written with National Park Service paleontologist Herbert Meyer, for UW Today.

What’s so special about these fossil beds?
No question, these are among America’s premier fossil beds. There is nothing like them anywhere. The preservation of the diverse insects and plants is incredible, and the fossils are abundant. Scientists have identified more than 1,700 species of organisms there, making it one of the richest fossil sites in the world.

The fossils are from the late Eocene when the climate of the Northern Hemisphere was tropical and amazingly warm from low latitudes to high. Then the climate began to cool and vegetation started to change. Much of Florissant’s significance comes from what it tells us about this period of change. The fossils fill a gap in the Eocene record found nowhere else.

Two dozen pollen grains, magnified

Photos of fossilized fern spores (top row) and pollen from conifers (second row) and flowering plants were collected by Estella Leopold, who used them to describe what the ancient forest was like at the site.Estella Leopold

What work did you do there?
As a botanist working for the U.S. Geological Survey, I wanted to identify the fossil pollen to amplify what we could learn from the plant leaves and fruits about the vegetation and the climate. To do that we built a modern pollen reference collection as an aid for botanically identifying the pollen in fossil floras to decipher what the ancient forests were like.

In my first report for the USGS, I expressed my wonderment that, in a single small piece of rock half an inch square, I found beautiful and abundant pollen grains, thousands of them. The data yielded an enticing picture of the vegetation and flora that existed then. It was exhilarating. It showed evidence of conifers, many familiar hardwoods, aquatic plants such as cattail, herbs such as evening primrose, grasses and ferns, and shrubs such as greasewood and soapberry.

Saved in Time: The Fight to Establish Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, ColoradoWhat happened in 1962 when the National Park Service announced its interest in the area?
Well, of course real estate values went up, anticipating a government buyout. Real estate developers began buying plots at a pretty price for summer cottages along the margins of the proposed monument. Ranchers saw an opportunity to cash in.

What happened in 1969?
About the half of the proposed monument on the east was sold and we went to court. Hanging in the balance was whether the courts would – or even could –successfully protect the fossil beds while the plans for the monument were put into place.

We were lucky and the courts stopped the development long enough for Congress to pass a bill and the president to sign it. In many important respects, it’s a benchmark case in U.S. environmental and constitutional law.