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No Home for the Bones

Haphazard Storage of Orange County's Fossil Discoveries Troubles Scientists

March 29, 1998|DEBORAH SCHOCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For more than a decade, Orange County has required that fossils and other artifacts that are dug up by developers with county permits remain within its borders.

But unlike its neighbors, the county never established a bona fide museum where million-year-old whale bones and other treasures can be researched by scientists and viewed by children. The county has also failed to charge developers for storing and cataloging these prehistoric relics, a practice that helps bolster museum collections in some neighboring counties.

Instead, Orange County's artifacts sit in a shabby metal warehouse behind barbed wire in Santa Ana, stuffed to overflowing with thousands of relics hidden from sight in bulging, aging boxes. Dozens of cracked, eroding plaster jackets containing rare fossils lie outside in the parking lot.

Dreams of a museum collapsed more than five years ago when a nonprofit natural history foundation fell apart in a morass of bankruptcy and bitterness. County government officials, burdened with these leftovers of lucrative housing projects and other construction, say that they lack the money to set things right.

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Although thousands of fossils survived for millions of years deep in the county's soils, questions remain about whether the collection will survive the modern-day guardianship of county officials.

"They either have to bite the bullet and realize they've put themselves into the natural history business, or they have the obligation to find a suitable repository," said David Whistler, a curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

To some, the warehouse is in essence a dump yard, a symbol of how modern-day suburbanites disregard the past.

Others say that a new consciousness is evident in a current warehouse expansion project. County officials say that they are also hoping to acquire larger quarters, hire a professional staff, create an inventory of the holdings, perhaps charge fees to developers--and even place some of these prehistoric riches on public view. A $350,000 federal grant, for instance, is earmarked for improving storage and treatment of archeological items found during road building.

"It's obvious we need to advance this program, and that's what we're going to do," said Tim Miller, manager of Orange County's harbors, beaches and parks.

Whatever the future holds, many scientists in the region view Orange County's problems as a glaring example of how not to treat the past:

* The warehouse, staffed one day a week by one county employee, is crammed with an estimated 15,000 cubic feet of fossils, shells, prehistoric tools, arrowheads and other artifacts. Many are stuffed into cardboard boxes piled four deep on the floor or on towering shelves out of reach. Some boxes are collapsing under the weight of more boxes stacked above them.

* With 5,000 square feet of space, the warehouse is too full to house many of its biggest fossils, which sit outside in plaster jackets. During this winter's storms, winds wreaked havoc with the thin sheets of plastic that county employees draped over the plaster pods.

* Vandals entered the warehouse area a few years ago, apparently cutting through the fence and jumping on some fossil jackets. A few jackets were pushed off outdoor shelving and broke.

* No overall cataloging system exists to keep track of the collection. Some boxes lack clear labels, while rain has erased identification numbers from some plaster jackets.

* Because the warehouse is full, some local consultants have been storing fossils for years at their own expense in their own storage areas or even drive-up self-storage units. One such firm, RMW Paleo Associates of Mission Viejo, estimates it has spent $70,000 to pay for extra warehouse space.

What troubles many scientists is that Orange County is considered a mecca of important fossils. Many are clues to a key period in the evolution of marine mammals, said Tom Demere, curator in the paleontology department of the San Diego Natural History Museum.

"Orange County is among the seven or eight most productive areas for marine fossils in the world," said whale expert Lawrence G. Barnes, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles.

But fossils encased in plaster do not aid scientific research. And some scientists estimate that it could take years and cost millions of dollars to get the current collection treated, identified and organized in a professional fashion.

Over the years, scientists have heard the horror stories.

One paleontologist deposited the fossil remains of an ancient walrus-like creature at the warehouse in 1992 after it was collected during a county road project. The now-extinct creature is probably 14 million years old, said paleontologist Mark Roeder. He later found the fossil outside, its head missing.

In the world of science, he said dryly, "A headless walrus is not as important as one with a head."

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