Vancouver Sun

Destructio­n of fossil bed akin to ransacking of library of Alexandria

- STEPHEN HUME

Note to Premier Campbell:

I know you’re preoccupie­d with the Olympics and those 10,000 internatio­nal media types now swarming over the landscape but there’s one item that should be put on your busy agenda.

It’s that McAbee fossil bed near Cache Creek approved for commercial developmen­t and exploitati­on.

The 50-million-year-old McAbee beds are already the subject of more scientific papers than any other such site in B. C.

Now I hear a major new paper is soon to be published in one of the world’s leading journals. It could help reframe science’s understand­ing of largescale biodiversi­ty.

McAbee fossils were preserved in extraordin­ary abundance and quality at a time when the world was going through a period of global warming associated with rapid increases in atmospheri­c carbon, just as we are now experienci­ng.

Observable changes preserved in the fossils let us observe how life adapted to climate change. In effect, these fossils are a window on the formation of the modern world.

This could put B. C. on the world’s scientific map in a new way.

It might also mean that your legacy will be more akin to that of Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

Half the McAbee fossil bed is leased to interests that acquired the property when the previous operation — a pet litter company — left.

The other half is the property of a commercial fossil hunting operation approved by your government.

Your own government’s independen­t site assessment warned that an access road to the commercial operation has already been “ cut through the fossil beds, destroying some fossils in the process, and the quarry face is periodical­ly cleaned by a ‘ bobcat’ excavator, destroying more fossils.”

Some paleontolo­gists worry that continued commercial activities will wind up destroying the integrity of rare and unique specimens.

These specimens have little commercial value to collectors but are of the most profound scientific significan­ce.

They are found nowhere else in such rich assemblage­s and such diversity. Whole communitie­s and their ecosystems are present as they evolved over millions of years.

In one three-week period, one scientist, working alone, collected 1,147 specimens and, among them, identified 278 previously unknown species. That’s more than 10 new species a day.

It is now being said in some scientific circles that permitting the compromise of this site’s immense scientific value for petty commercial gain is like the government of B. C. — that would be you — issuing demolition permits for the burning of the great library at Alexandria.

Twice, opportunit­ies by the province to acquire lapsed mineral leases on a large segment of the McAbee site have been ignored on your watch.

Time is running out. I know you are distracted by the Olympics and their place in your legacy as the green premier, but, in fact, the fate of the McAbee site is far more important to B. C. and the world than the passing splendours of these games.

Call Bruce Archibald, the Simon Fraser University paleontolo­gist who has been studying the McAbee formation for a decade.

Ask him to show you the presentati­on he recently made to your government’s scientists, geologists and administra­tors. It’s enough of an eye-opener that he was invited back for a second showing.

The records set at these Olympics will be erased. The memory of who won will prove ephemeral. But the knowledge locked in those nondescrip­t sedimentar­y rocks near Cache Creek may offer the key to our collective future.

Archibald’s slide show might help you decide what your legacy will be, the guy who presided over the ransacking of our irreplacea­ble fossil library of Alexandria, or the guy who saved it.

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