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Jurassic Park
The richest undisturbed cache of dinosaur fossils in North America may change the way we see the distant past. It's already transformed rancher Allen Cook's present

By Guy Gugliotta
Sunday, August 13, 2006

IT WAS THE PROSPECTOR WHO FOUND IT FIRST. Maybe 30 years ago, back when uranium was worth a lot, when people thought nuclear power was your friend. He was working a ridge up at Spring Creek, Wyo., looking for ore with a scintillometer, a modern-day Geiger counter. He was getting a lot of hits.

But there was something else. Big, off-color rocks in strange shapes were lying loose on the ground where the wind had blown the dirt off them. The prospector was a geologist. He knew what those were. Dinosaur bones. From big dinosaurs -- like the ones that fill up museum exhibits.

The prospector knew that dinosaur bones store trace uranium from groundwater, so he couldn't tell whether there was uranium ore buried down there, and he wasn't hopeful there was: Dinosaur bones were everywhere, loose on the ground and probably a lot more down below, making his meter ping. When the prospector got home he told his partner what he'd discovered. They decided to leave the ridge alone and say nothing about it. Prospectors, if they're any good, don't talk much.

A couple of decades later, a lot had changed. The first prospector was deep into his seventies by then, and the partner, a Colorado-based geologist named Fred Groth, was almost 70 himself. Nobody was buying uranium much. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl had scared off the power companies.

For reasons not entirely clear, though, Groth in 1999 decided to tell somebody about the Spring Creek ridge. He said later it was because there was suddenly "a lot of interest in dinosaurs" after a long time when there wasn't. He said he was afraid "local people" would stumble on the ridge, figure out what it was, steal the bones and sell them. Except that bone hunters had been digging up southeastern Wyoming for almost 130 years without finding that particular outcrop.

The most important change at Spring Creek was that the property had a new owner. Groth and his partner had had a deal for access to mineral rights with Spring Creek's former owner back when they first found the dinosaurs. But they had no deal with the new one. That was Allen Cook, a cattle rancher who owned 120,000 acres in all. Spring Creek was in the extreme northwest corner of his property.

Groth started talking about the rich deposit of dinosaur bones with the University of Wyoming, down the road in Laramie, and with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. He took a University of Wyoming paleontologist out for a visit.

Only then did he call Cook.

By all accounts, this was a short but volcanic conversation. "I said, 'There is a dinosaur occurrence out there,' " Groth recalled. "He wanted to know where it was, and I said I wouldn't tell him unless we had an agreement." Groth said he was concerned about preserving the bones and was thinking of "some kind of surface lease" to allow the museum or the university to develop it. "I had no interest in dealing with Mr. Cook."

Which was fortunate.

Cook, 51 in early summer 1999 and 58 today, is a soft-spoken, solitary man, polite but off-putting, with great presence. He is heavyset, strong not fat, and moves his hands slowly, almost without gesture. Anyone who meets him remembers him. He is the sort of person people want to impress without really knowing why.

Groth had made a bad impression. Even today remembered rage flares in Cook's eyes when he recalls the conversation. Cook said he concluded that Groth "just wanted to get his hands on the land so he could exploit it. I told him, 'I don't know what you're talking about, but one thing I do know is that I'm not going to donate it to you.' " They haven't spoken since.

BUT COOK WAS INTERESTED. He made it his business to know everything about his property, but he knew nothing about dinosaurs. Never thought about them, never studied them, wouldn't know a dinosaur bone if he saw one.

So he, too, contacted the University of Wyoming, which sent a graduate student named Kelli Trujillo out to Spring Creek. She didn't have a scintillometer, so she had to search the hard way -- tramping around the rocks with her head to the ground.

And there they were.

She knocked on Cook's door and told him: You've got a big piece of the Morrison Formation on your property about 150 million years old. The Morrison is a footprint of shale, mud rock and sandstone laid down by an ancient, semitropical river system in what is now the western United States. Besides in Wyoming, outcrops can be found from western Montana into northern New Mexico and the tip of Oklahoma. It is the most famous dinosaur bed in North America, Trujillo told Cook, and one of the most famous in the world. It's known for big sauropods -- plant-eaters.

You've got plenty of those, but your piece of the Morrison is special for another reason, she continued. You've got little critters, too, and fossilized fish, birds, turtles and even plants. Other parts of the Morrison, like Como Bluff down the road, probably had all that stuff once, but back in Wyoming's dinosaur glory day, the bone hunters kicked the small fossils aside so they could mine the apatosaurus, the diplodocus and the other monsters that the museums were looking for.

Things are different now, she explained. Today scientists want to know everything about a site -- not only the dinosaurs but the rest of the animals, as well as the plants, the ancient weather and what the world was like. And nobody has so much as stuck a pick in the ground in Spring Creek, she said. You've got "Jurassic Park" in your back yard. Untouched. The real thing.

She took Cook out to the ridge to show him. Cook realized he'd walked past dinosaur bones before but hadn't recognized them. The bones are petrified, literally turned to stone, and that's what the untrained eye sees.

There was no obvious reason for Spring Creek to have escaped the pickax for so many years, but Cook had a pretty good idea: "Private owners always controlled it, and they had heavy hands that didn't allow much access."

Cook's property was a classic case. For decades, it served as the headquarters of the Swan Land and Cattle Company, one of the biggest ranches that ever existed, and one with an unforgiving landlord. Along with other self-help techniques, rustlers were discouraged with bullets. In the 1890s Swan hired the notorious gunman Tom Horn to perform this service, and he did well. His tragic flaw, however, was excessive zeal, not a good trait for the frontier equivalent of a paid enforcer. Wyoming hanged him in Cheyenne in 1903 for murdering the 14-year-old son of a homesteader.

Southeastern Wyoming today is less cutthroat, but it's still not a good place to wander unasked onto somebody's land, then compound the insult by trying to intimidate the owner into getting rid of it. Especially Allen Cook. That somebody would even think of it is almost inconceivable to anyone who knows the rancher. Trujillo, now an independent paleontologist and Cook's fast friend, noted that "Allen doesn't like anyone telling him what he should do with his property." Indeed.

But after Trujillo showed him the Spring Creek dinosaurs, "I was intrigued," Cook acknowledged. "I started to realize the magnitude of the find."

Maybe the dinosaurs were worth something, and he could sell them. He knew Spring Creek was the most "logistically difficult" part of his ranch. Grass was good, but there weren't many roads. Hard to reach the cattle. He didn't have to keep that piece, and somebody might pay a premium for it. He'd check it out further, then decide.

And he did. It took six years, but exactly a week before Christmas 2005, Cook gave Spring Creek away: 4,700 acres of dinosaur-rich, prehistoric river delta valued at $8 million. The unlikely beneficiary was the University of Pittsburgh, a big school in an Eastern industrial city, with no reputation for dinosaurs.

The story of how this happened is serendipitous at first but logical in the end -- the natural outgrowth of an unlikely friendship between Cook and the two educators who had the sense to play straight with him. As those who know Cook will quickly point out, if you do that, he'll play straight with you.

BUT IN 1999, Cook was not much of a philanthropist. His ranch began about 25 miles north of Laramie and encompassed roughly 200 square miles of postcard horizons about 7,000 feet above sea level. In Wyoming terms, the ranch was on the lower end of "big."

Rainfall on the high plains is too sporadic for trees, but in a wet year, the grass comes up to a man's knees and the ranch can support up to 8,000 cattle. In a desert year, the grass is tufted and dotted with sagebrush except where the Laramie River irrigates it. In a desert year -- like this year -- Cook grazes 5,000 cattle and will ship them in late summer or early autumn to Nebraska, where he feeds them out and sells them. Then he retreats to Wyoming for the long, deadly cold winter. In the spring he buys a new herd, and the cycle begins again.

To hear him tell it, Cook was a reluctant cattleman. True, he was born and raised to ranching on what he called a "small cow-and-calf deal" near Shreveport, La., but he wasn't fond of the calling, and when he went to college "I swore I'd never be around another cow as long as I lived."

He majored in physical education in Louisiana, got a master's degree in management and counseling and was about to start on a doctorate in clinical psychology. But at that point he decided that academia wouldn't do, so he moved with his wife, Carol, to Wheatland, Wyo., about 50 miles east of today's Cook ranch. That was 1975.

"I was tired of the heat and humidity down South; I knew there had to be a better place," Cook said. "And there weren't that many people in Wyoming. That appealed to me."

Cook worked for a year as a high school guidance counselor, and when the Basin Electric Power Cooperative built a plant in Wheatland, he was hired to run its human resources department. On the side, he started to work as an outfitter, taking visitors on hunting trips, a sideline that continued for 20 years -- long after he needed the work. He credits this avocation with giving him an appreciation of Wyoming's high country, a kinship that, even today, he doesn't fully understand: "Either you have it, or you don't," he said. "I've become a steward of the land."

He didn't even have land, at first. But as he settled into Wyoming, "I started to buy and sell smaller pieces of property and run cattle on leased land," he said. His high school resolve was fading, and when land prices plunged during the farm crisis of the 1980s, he began to buy much bigger pieces of property, putting them together and stocking them with cattle.

He was good at it, but that came as no surprise: "You can't 'learn' the cattle business," he said. "It's too much to know. It's got all kinds of hooks and claws that can trip you up. You have to be born to it."

In 1999, Cook was, by any measure, a rich man. He had rebuilt his fences, cleared off the junk, fixed up the irrigation system for the meadow where he grew his hay and was living in a stunning mountainside ranch house with 120 degrees of picture windows overlooking the Laramie River valley.

"It took a lot of hard work and a lot of capital," he said, but he had sculpted a spectacular piece of property, and he knew it.

Still, the dinosaurs had appeared at an unusual time in his life. For having built himself a mountain paradise, he was already thinking of selling it, an impulse which persists today, even though he can't, or won't, explain it very well.

"I've never been a really active seller," Cook said, but he speaks of downsizing, of finding a suitable buyer so as not to saddle his son, Gabe, with "such an immense responsibility." His daughter is in medical school.

"You can be the best operator in the world and go broke," Cook said. "It wouldn't even be your fault."

But "suitable" is a daunting condition for Cook. He would prefer to sell to another cattleman like himself, he said, but grassland in Wyoming had become so expensive by 1999 that no real rancher could afford to buy the whole spread and operate it at a profit. He would also sell to an "amenity rancher," a hugely rich person with a yen for the Western life, as long as the integrity of the property was maintained.

But under no terms would he sell to a developer, who might build a speedway on the property or divide it into 400-acre vacation "ranchettes."

Cook doesn't talk much about why he was, and is, so choosy, perhaps too choosy to ever sell the ranch. But he has tremendous respect for his land, not only for itself but because of how he has restored and maintained it. Cook can recount more than 100 years of his ranch's history, from Swan to himself, a continuum of private ownership and personal responsibility that has left the land almost as elegantly unbesmirched as the day the first Native American saw it, perhaps 12,000 years ago. He wants to continue the tradition. No picnic tables, no garbage cans, no campgrounds, no beer bottles, no hiking trails, no candy wrappers, no motocross. Never.

Cook developed a plan. He would seek a "conservation buyer," a nonprofit organization that would take care of the property, and use Spring Creek as a sweetener. The buyer would pay a premium for the dinosaur piece, then donate it to a university and take a tax deduction.

He opened negotiations with the Wyoming chapter of the Nature Conservancy, and at the same time he hired Bill Mundy, a Seattle-based real estate appraiser who specializes in putting dollar values on land with archaeological or earth science potential. Mundy had appraised Utah's Dinosaur National Monument, California's redwoods and 1.7 million acres of old growth forest on Tierra del Fuego.

Mundy visited Spring Creek in 2000 and saw the dinosaur bones and the Native American sites. "The ranch was just gargantuan," Mundy recalled. "I told Allen, 'In my opinion you don't have a ranch, you have a natural science laboratory.' And besides that, there's this huge history in the region."

Which might make the property even more attractive. Besides its history of Tom Horn and the Swan ranch, Spring Creek is next door to what is left of Wilcox, Wyo., where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid robbed the Union Pacific, triggering the manhunt that eventually forced them to flee to Bolivia.

The Union Pacific still whistles past the Cook ranch today on the original track bed of the transcontinental railroad, barreling through cities and towns known to generations of Western history buffs -- Cheyenne, Laramie, Wilcox and Medicine Bow, the setting for Owen Wister's 1902 novel, The Virginian, whose laconic hero was the central character in two movies and a TV show.

Mundy appraised Spring Creek at $8 million and offered a suggestion. His boyhood friend Alec Stewart served as dean of the University of Pittsburgh's Honors College, which might be interested in buying Spring Creek. The Honors College ran a student summer camp outside Yellowstone Park to study natural science. Mundy telephoned Stewart in the autumn of 2000 and told him how "you stumble all over the dinosaurs" at Spring Creek and how it was "a national treasure. What better way to oversee it than to associate it with a university?"

After Stewart hung up, he stepped to the office next door to speak to Ed McCord, his longtime friend and the college's director of programming. McCord also supervised the Yellowstone program.

"This is either the craziest thing to ever come down the pike, or it's something we ought to pay attention to," said Stewart, an easy-listening, avuncular man whose students call him "Doc."

McCord, a meticulous planner and compulsive organizer, visited the nearby Carnegie Museum of Natural History to learn about dinosaurs. Carnegie, it turned out, had been a major player in the "bone wars" that straddled the beginning of Wyoming's 20th century. Museum paleontologists had dug all over Wyoming's portion of the Morrison Formation -- but not at Spring Creek--and in 1898 had unearthed Diplodocus carnegii, named after the museum's benefactor. Andrew Carnegie was so tickled that he sent replicas of "Dippy" to the British Museum, the czar of Russia and the king of Spain.

McCord realized that the acquisition of Spring Creek could mark the museum's triumphant return to Wyoming, and he enlisted Carnegie as a collaborator. The possibilities were looking better, but "winter was coming," he said, "and we needed to get out there to meet the landlord."

McCord remembers the subsequent journey -- in November 2000 -- as an epic adventure: landing in Laramie in a blizzard; traveling along the highway behind Cook's snowplow; golden eagles killing and eating rabbits in the snow; winds howling over a bleak white landscape with temperatures at 5 degrees below zero. As they drove through the ranch, Cook left open gates so the pronghorn antelope could find shelter. Pronghorn are blindingly fast, but they won't jump fences.

Stewart and McCord stayed several days, spending most of the time inside talking with Cook while they waited for the weather to clear. They explained how they planned to turn Spring Creek into a summer field facility for undergraduates and a research site for scholars. They would dig dinosaurs, they said, but they would also map Native American campgrounds, do experiments in high desert habitat and study the pronghorn, elk, deer, prairie dogs, foxes, eagles, burrowing owls and mountain plovers that lived there.

Cook was impressed. They had the right ideas, and they had been serious enough to come see him: "They were real aggressive in thinking about doing new things."

Stewart and McCord were equally impressed. Cook was a "square-shooter and a forthright guy," Stewart said, "somebody who would close a deal with a handshake."

But despite what McCord called Cook's "generous spirit," both visitors understood that Cook wanted to get his money's worth. It took six years and one near miss with the Nature Conservancy, which almost had a deal with Cook, before Cook called Stewart in September 2005.

"Alec, this is Allen Cook. You still interested in this property?"

"Sure," Stewart replied.

"I've had a couple of good years in the cattle business," Cook said. "I might be interested in making a gift."

And he was. He wanted to grant Pitt unrestricted access and use of the property, but Pitt found that arrangement contractually complicated. Instead, it paid Cook $1 million and took outright title to the land. The deal was signed December 18, so Cook could have it in hand before the end of the tax year.

"Just like that," Stewart said. "After three years of frustration and two years of nothing, we had three minutes of orgasmic success."

IN MARCH, Stewart and McCord convened a meeting with officials from Carnegie and the University of Wyoming, Pitt's other collaborator. Stewart urged the delegates to join him and McCord in a June field trip to size up the property.

It was a large crowd. McCord commandeered Medicine Bow's somewhat down-at-the-heels Virginian hotel, hard by the Union Pacific tracks. The food was good, and the flowered carpet and brocade decor had an authentic, albeit dog-eared, "Gunsmoke" feel. Rooms were small and airless, though, and the plumbing was too frequently down the hall. Medicine Bow itself was mostly abandoned, a grid of perhaps four dusty streets in either direction, with one gas station and a convenience store where you could buy fuses and plug tobacco. The local high school had shut down around 1996 -- ads for the prom were still posted on the bulletin boards. Trains cannonballed through town every 20 minutes or so, past a station where no one ever stopped anymore.

The locals said not to let the solitude be a hindrance. "The growing season is short and cool, population is small, and only 3 or 4 percent of the land is cultivable," said University of Wyoming botanist Dennis Knight. "Denver [about three hours away on the highway going south] is a big metropolis and a real nice place to live, and people ask, 'How do you stand it up here?' Well, it's easy. Wilderness is the whole point."

But Pitt's presence was anything but "dudes on parade." Paleontologists, archaeologists and earth scientists, regardless of where they teach, make their reputations in the backlands, and the delegates quickly adjusted to the hardships of the Virginian, taking refuge in a well-worn but pleasant hotel bar festooned with mezzotints of Western bad men ranging from Bat Masterson to Billy the Kid.

The Carnegie contingent wasn't very optimistic about Spring Creek's dinosaurs. True, the pedigree was immaculate, but the shale and mud stones of the semitropical river swamp that had been Wyoming 150 million years ago had been picked over pretty thoroughly. Carnegie itself had built probably the nation's finest collection of large sauropods by quarrying the Morrison, and the old, nearby digs at Como Bluff, Sheep Creek and Bone Cabin were legendary in paleontology.

But that was then. The hot spots today, the Carnegie folks explained, are relatively new excavations in China and Mongolia, on the fringes of the Gobi Desert and in the windswept badlands of Argentine Patagonia. Some of these formations are Jurassic, but they also include earlier and later deposits. Most important, though, the sites are relatively pristine, so almost everything that comes out of them is a brand-new discovery. Wyoming's heyday ended a century ago.

The field trip began on a bright late spring morning. Delegates piled into SUVs and fell into single file behind the Pitt vans driven by McCord and graduating senior Clay Magill, an engaging ex-Marine with two colors of hair and a geology fellowship to Cambridge University in the fall.

McCord had set up a few tepees on a bluff turned yellow by last year's bleached, uneaten grass. New growth was poking through, but slowly. Wyoming is enduring a years-long drought and will be lucky to see 13 inches of rain this year.

This bit of intelligence came from Allen Cook, who arrived quietly with son Gabe in a pickup truck. Cook wore a long-sleeved cotton shirt with the cuffs down, blue jeans and boots. No hat, no shades and not much small talk. He greeted Stewart and McCord and lingered in the background during a brief opening ceremony that extolled his virtues. McCord displayed a sign he had prepared in Pittsburgh and stashed in one of the vans: "Allen L. Cook, Spring Creek Preserve, University of Pittsburgh."

If Cook was gratified, he didn't let on. "I've never been a benefactor before," he told Stewart.

"Well, you are now," Stewart replied.

The delegates climbed back into the SUVs, with Trujillo leading the caravan to the dinosaur beds. The Carnegie paleontologists were mildly interested when Trujillo showed them a string of sauropod vertebrae, each one about the size of a softball, lying in a row on a dusty stretch of ground along with a limb bone as big as a park bench. Nothing unusual there.

Still, the vertebrae were articulated -- arranged in a natural pattern that suggested the animal's carcass, and the site itself, had never been disturbed. And they were lying loose on the surface, an indication that more, perhaps much more, of the creature might lurk below.

Then Carnegie's Zhe-Xi Luo, a world-renowned expert in early mammals, held up the fossilized grooved claw of a small predatory dinosaur lying nearby in the dust: "These are very rare" in this part of Wyoming, Luo's colleague Matt Lamanna said with excitement. "I can't believe you found this."

Moments later, a Pitt archaeology student held up the petrified tooth of what might have been an allosaurus, a Jurassic predator: "That's either a juvenile example of a known animal, or a new species of very small animal," Lamanna said, with another grin. "And this isn't even a dig! This is just a few people messing around."

Spring Creek had passed its biggest test. As advertised, it was an untouched slice of one of the richest dinosaur beds ever dug and, as such, was "the perfect example of the Morrison not being played out," Luo said. "These other sites were hurt in a big way while the search focused on the big dinosaurs, but it's just a matter of time before we come up with diverse forms of early mammals. We didn't have information for this area. Now we will."

There is plenty of information to get. In relatively recent years, paleontologists have targeted the Jurassic Era to answer key evolutionary questions that were never posed in the days when excavators were digging monsters from the Morrison.

Since then, scientists such as Luo have shown that Jurassic mammals were larger and far more diverse than the shrew-like creatures that were found by earlier discoverers. Most of these Jurassic lineages died out, but it is possible, perhaps even likely, that the ancestors of modern mammals may turn up in a Jurassic formation.

Paleontologists are also interested in finding out whether feathered dinosaurs, which appear relatively frequently in later formations, existed during the Jurassic. After all, archaeopteryx, the first known bird, is a Jurassic animal.

But, most of all, by using modern techniques to excavate untainted sites such as Spring Creek, scientists will gain information about the Jurassic ecosystem -- the plant life, the climate, the water supply and the geography of a world inhabited both by finger-size mammals and the largest land creatures ever to roam the Earth.

During the rest of that day and the next, the delegates hiked over Spring Creek, studying plants, prairie dogs, pronghorn and the ancient sites where Native Americans had placed rings of stones to hold the edges of their tepees down. Anthropologists found a quartzite outcrop that had been used to quarry knives and

arrowheads thousands of years ago. They found exploded stones that had been heated in campfires then dumped into cook pots made of skins sunk into depressions in the ground. Ceramics don't travel well, the anthropologists explained, so nomadic peoples heat stew by tossing hot stones in it. They explode, but the shards sink to the bottom so you don't eat them.

"There are thousands of years of history to be told here," said University of Wyoming anthropology chairman Robert Kelly. But telling it is a matter of finding "a little bit here, a little bit there," he added. Nomads don't build sites and don't leave ruins.

For Stewart and McCord, the trip confirmed their fondest hopes. Besides the dinosaurs and the archaeology, the property was a bird sanctuary, had a prairie dog town and would serve elegantly as a laboratory for mountain ecology.

McCord suggested students might survey the property and design the encampment for the summer program that would probably begin next year. He handed out copies of a Hemingway essay on fishing in Wyoming, gave delegates pocket editions of The Virginian to go with their commemorative T-shirts and thought about adding a Western literature course to the summer curriculum.

Cook stuck around for the first day and hosted a barbecue in a tent next to his house on the second. He was polite but unobtrusive. Yet during a long conversation in his parlor, it was clear he was pleased with a choice that, in the end, had been quite simple.

"I trust Alec and Ed," he said. "I feel very strongly about them."

Guy Gugliotta, a former Post reporter, is a freelance writer living in New York.

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