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Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument • In her next life, Nancy Nelson wants to be a paleontologist.
The Kanab resident lives in a prime area to practice that profession: Kanab is next door to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, where 1.9 million acres of sandstone formations have produced an extravagance of fossils.
Nelson was among 62 people who last week tagged along with scientists from the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the park, on a two-day trip to see the latest dinosaur fossil find and a nearby archaeological site.
The site is strewn with artifacts, including grinding stones, hammers and other tools left by transient prehistoric American Indians. The items date from 7,000 years to just 200 years ago based on arrowheads found near the dinosaur find.
"I appreciate what the BLM is doing," said Nelson. "It's the only way people are able to see these things."
The latest fossil discovery is the skull of a parasaurolophus, a plant-eating creature standing 30 feet tall and weighing 6,000 pounds that roamed the area's subtropical jungle 75 million years ago when an inland sea running north and south divided much of North America.
The skull was found in the rich, 8,000-foot deep Kaiparowits formation, which has yielded 127 significant fossil specimens in the past decade.
BLM paleontologist Alan Titus said it is unknown if the skull represents a new species or is similar to seven other skulls unearthed in the Southwest in the past 30 years.
Titus said the parasaurolophus is distinguished by a tubular appendage on the front of its face that extended above its head and was part of the creature's respiratory system. Scientists believe the male tube was more pronounced than the female's and could have been an evolutionary adaptation that figured in mating.
"It's all about sex," said Titus. "It's about looking good and showing off."
Titus said crews last week encased the fossil in plaster and moved it to the BLM's paleontology laboratory in Kanab. From there it will eventually be shipped to the Utah Museum of Natural History at the University of Utah for further study.
One plus of this particular discovery is that it was only 100 feet from a dirt road and won't require the helicopter often used to ferry out encased fossils.
Just a few other bone fragments believed to belong to the creature were found at the site, but Titus brought along some other fossils for visitors to see, including the fossilized skin of a Gryposaurus found earlier on the monument.
"This is just awesome," said 12-year-old Liam Higgins, who lives in London and took the tour while visiting relatives in Kanab.
"I love dinosaurs," said Kanab resident Victor Cooper. "I'm always telling the BLM to promote dinosaurs. People love them. They are interesting for adults, kids and families."
Cooper said many people in southern Utah don't understand that the mission of the BLM is scientific research on the monument and that such projects as tours to the fossil site are important to demonstrate there is no mystery surrounding that research.
"It's nice to go out and see and touch what is going on," said Cooper. "The [monument] is one of the few places in the world that provides such easy access to [fossils] without going to places like Mongolia and China. … This is right in our own huge backyard."
BLM spokesman Larry Crutchfield said there is no schedule for the public tours, which are only offered when a significant fossil is discovered at a site with relatively easy access and the fossil is about to be removed for study.
The parasaurolophus skull was discovered by Scott Richardson, a seasonal BLM employee who has shown a knack for finding significant fossils on the monument in the past several years.
One of his more important finds in the past year was the skull of a new species of tyrannosaurus. It was three million years older than the oldest previously known tyrannosaurus skull in North America.
Richardson, who when not searching for fossils, manages a ski resort in Flagstaff, Ariz., went on this week's tours and said he discovered the skull last November, two days before Thanksgiving.
He said he looks for formations that might provide exposed bones. "I was just walking around when I found this site."
Richardson said that since the monument was created in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, 50,000 acres have been surveyed for fossils and 2,500 sites documented, many with dinosaur bones.
Richardson is also responsible for noticing the archaeological artifacts scattered near one of his campsites.
Brian Storm, an archaeological technician for the BLM, said the site was dated by the types of arrowheads found there. At that time, he said, the desert area now vegetated with pinyon-juniper and sagebrush supported forests of ponderosa pines, stands of aspen, berry-producing bushes and game animals as large as elk.
He said such finds are not unusual in southern Utah and elsewhere in the region.
"Some say the entire Southwest is an archaeology site," he said.