John Day Fossil Beds
Administrative History
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Chapter Three:

Prelude to a master plan

When a NPS study team visited Grant and Wheeler counties in June 1967, it found a series or combination of sites suitable for a national monument. Confusion over whether the state wanted to relinquish control of three state parks, however, led to a finding that inclusion within the National Park System did not appear feasible. Although the state offered cautious support for the proposal and its local backers succeeded in obtaining a number of endorsements throughout Oregon, the NPS showed its reluctance to do anything further about the proposition. A frustrated Ullman introduced legislation in February 1969, something which led to a commitment by the NPS to produce a master plan for the proposed national monument.

Formal announcement of the evaluation study came less than a week after Ullman's request. [34] This initially caught state parks officials by surprise, but Talbot pledged cooperation and assistance, if needed, in a carefully worded letter to Ullman. [35] In it, he acknowledged that Thomas Condon-John Day Fossil Beds State Park received only minor improvements in the past, but a "visitor interpretive center" would probably be considered for the 1969-71 budget. Formal interpretation of Painted Hills State Park, however, would have to wait until the culmination of negotiations to buy the more than 2,800 acres under easement. Talbot qualified his statement about Oregonians being reluctant to transfer their state parks to some other agency by indicating that the state needed time to formulate a position should the area meet NPS standards for national monuments.

Ullman forwarded the letter to the NPS, which responded through regional director John Rutter on May 24, 1967. Rutter defined the study's purpose as evaluating "the natural, scientific, and recreational resources of the area and to recommend possible courses of planning action that would appear to be in the best public interest." [36] Consequently, the NPS study team stuck to generalities and did not discuss actual boundaries of a proposed national monument.

The evaluation study consisted of two parts. Shotwell authored a report on the upper basin's paleontological significance, which firmly established its national importance and made suggestions for interpretation of these resources. [37] A separate report by other members of the study team concluded that scenic, historic, and recreation resources in the area possessed state or local importance. [38] The team did not make a determination about eligibility for national monument status during a two week field visit in June, something which concluded with Ullman holding public meetings about the proposal in John Day and Fossil. [39]

Before the study reached Washington, the NPS Office of Resource Planning in San Francisco acknowledged--upon corroboration by two other paleontologists--that the upper basin's major scientific sites warranted national monument status in accordance with Shotwell's conclusions. [40] Such status appeared to them, however, as conditional on the state's willingness to transfer Thomas Condon-John Day Fossil Beds, Painted Hills, and Clarno state parks to the NPS. They construed Shotwell's suggestions for interpretation as implying the impracticality of establishing a national monument on lands outside of the three state parks. [41] The acting chief of Resource Planning then related how the study team's captain, Dan Burroughs, had seen Talbot's letter to Ullman. This supposedly advised the congressman that the state opposed transfer of its parks in the fossil beds. He then summarized remarks made by deputy state parks superintendent Richard McCosh during the study team's field visit. McCosh reportedly said that the state opposed a transfer until such time as the federal government might give specific information on how much money would be spent for development, with a definite program in terms of time. [42]

This became the basis for conclusions made by the Division of New Area Studies in Washington once they received a memorandum from Rutter which agreed with Resource Planning's assessment about lands outside the state parks. [43] They went somewhat further in stating that the three state parks perhaps contained the core or heart of the paleontological resources, and that these resources "already are available for public use and benefit." [44] The Division of New Area Studies concluded that "it would not appear feasible or desirable to make changes in this present arrangement since the State does not wish to release its interest in the area at this time" but left a door open to additional study if the state sought national monument status. [45]

With these conclusions in hand, the NPS presented its study to the Secretary's Advisory Board in November. With the boundaries for any discussion having been set, the board repeated NPS findings in its recommendation to Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall.46] The Secretary agreed with the board and conveyed his decision to Ullman in December. [47]

What Talbot later termed to be an "after you, Alphonse" situation (in that both parties appeared to drag their feet on the national monument proposal by being overly formal in their dealings with each other) began when NPS assistant director Theodor R. Swem wrote to Governor Tom McCall about the board's recommendation in January 1968.48] Talbot drafted a response for McCall, one which urged a correction be made to the statement "the state apparently does not wish to release its interest in the area" because no one had asked them to relinquish the state parks. [49] At this point Talbot outlined a procedure to approve transfer of the state parks.50] The first step required obtaining administrative clearance from the State Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee at its meeting on March 14. This committee approved a draft resolution, one which requested the NPS to conduct additional studies in the John Day Basin, though Talbot tabled it until the evaluation conducted in 1967 came out in printed form. Once the study appeared, Talbot sent the resolution to the highway commission members whose approval followed in July. [51]

In August the NPS readied itself for another request from Ullman, though this came to Secretary Udall on October 1, 1968. [52] Udall responded by stating that the state's interest in seeing national monument status pursued further did not constitute, in the Advisory Board's words, "actively seeking national monument status." [53] Once the state clarified its position by endorsing national monument status on November 15, the Secretary's office assured Ullman that a NPS study could be programmed "as soon as other commitments will allow. " [54]

While the state clarified its position, Glass sought to implement another recommendation stemming from the Grant County Planning Commission's report on recreation potential. This involved placing interpretive signs and markers along roadsides at geological points of interest. Gordon Glass and others wanted a loop tour to start at Mount Vernon, traverse west to Picture Gorge, go north to Kimberly, then east to Long Creek, and back to Mount Vernon on US 395. [55]

This project may have had its origins during a weekend excursion taken by three CEPOP members in November 1946. They met Thomas P. Thayer of the U.S. Geological Survey in John Day for an all day tour of Grant County's fossil localities. [56] This developed further while Thayer periodically returned to the John Day Basin over the next two decades. [57] During this period Thayer met Glass, who he found willing to coordinate the planning and placement of interpretive plaques for a geological tour of Grant County. [58] As a first step, Thayer wrote most of a booklet on the upper basin's geology published through the U.S. Geological Survey in 1969. [59] He tied the stops in its road log to locations where Glass and Buck Smith could obtain approval for installation of the plaques. [60] Sponsorship by Grant County ensured that most of the waysides had been constructed by the time Thayer's booklet appeared. [61]

Steiwer, meanwhile, continued to express Wheeler County's concern about the lack of visitor facilities in the three state parks and looked for ways to promote the proposed national monument. [62] As a board member of the Oregon Historical Society (OHS), Steiwer had access to an organization with statewide influence, something that could prove useful in lobbying the Oregon Legislature. [63] At the request of OHS director Thomas Vaughn, Steiwer presented the proposal at a board meeting on February 14, 1969. [64] Once he stressed the upper John Day Basin's paleontological significance and a need for better protection of its fossil resources, the board endorsed the proposal and expressed a willingness to help secure the legislature's backing for national monument status. [65]

Any action that the legislature might take, however, had to be deferred until the NPS prepared a master plan which better delineated the form for a national monument. In March, three state senators and one representative sponsored a memorial to the President and Congress for establishment of a 10,000 acre monument in Grant and Wheeler counties. [66] The state senate's Fish and Game Committee tabled the memorial after Burroughs advised them in his testimony that a master plan could supply precise acreage and specific development plans. When Burroughs reiterated a NPS position that no possibility existed for a master plan being prepared in 1969, this effectively precluded any action the biennial legislature could take until its 1971 session. [67]

Ullman gave the administrative approach one more try before introducing legislation in Congress. When writing to Hartzog in January, Ullman related that the state now sought national monument status and asked for further studies by the NPS. [68] After waiting four weeks without a reply, Ullman introduced HR 7625 on February 25, 1969. His bill authorized acquisition of all three state parks (at the time totaling 4,480 acres), together with other such areas as the Secretary of the Interior determined to be suitable for administration as part of the monument. [69] The NPS did not respond to Ullman's letter until March 6, one day before the newly-elected senator from Oregon, Robert Packwood, introduced an identical bill (S 1521) in the Senate. At this point NPS assistant director Theodor Swem wrote to Ullman and offered to resubmit the study team's evaluation to the Secretary's Advisory Board. Swem cautioned, however, that the board might again defer action without preparation of a master plan, something which the NPS could not undertake that year due to a backlog of other plans and studies. [70]

No hearings took place on the legislation, nor did the Department of the Interior have to prepare a report on either bill. [71] Their intent seemed to be served by stirring the NPS to schedule a master plan study for fiscal year 1970. [72] At first tentative, Ullman subsequently secured a NPS pledge of December 1970 for the study's completion date. [73]

Once state officials learned of this development, they urged Ullman to convey a couple of suggestions to NPS planners. One concerned allowing visitors "to explore for and remove token materials under appropriate special rules and regulations," as a way of enhancing the area's educational potential. The other pertained to naming the monument after Thomas Condon, as per a suggestion by the State Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee. [74] Both ideas represented a move away from only cautious support expressed a few months earlier, and the noncommittal approach state parks personnel took during the evaluation study in 1967. [75]

After the master plan project had been activated by the NPS on August 12, 1969, its planners made a reconnaissance in order to prepare a planning directive. [76] This took place in March 1970, when a team mainly from the Western Service Center in San Francisco visited the upper John Day Basin. [77] Among the preliminary findings made in order to focus the planning directive, the team identified a need for centering visitor contact and interpretation, preferably where the broadest variety of features exist. They recognized that the upper basin did not intercept cross-country travelers, though this could change with development and public relations work. The planners acknowledged that visitors should have an opportunity to find and excavate fossils within a controlled area, as per the state's suggestion to Ullman. Since campgrounds existed on U.S. Forest Service land in the upper basin, they did not see a need for overnight camping within the proposed monument. The team also cautioned against any proposal involving large acquisitions of privately-owned bottomland. [78]

This reconnaissance also summarized four alternatives for possible NPS administration in the area. The first focused on the Sheep Rock area by itself, while the second centered on Sheep Rock and Clarno. A third alternative added Painted Hills to Sheep Rock and Clarno, but the fourth included all known points of geological interest in the upper basin. [79] Two months later Regional Director John Rutter approved the third alternative in the resulting planning directive, but with an understanding that "no area of special geological significance is ruled out at this time." [80]

Sheep Rock as view from Cant Ranch
Sheep Rock as view from Cant Ranch. Since planners thought it dominated the scene along this portion of State Highway 19,
they gave the name "Sheep Rock" to the prospective monument's largest unit.
(photo by the author, 1992)

Next> Planning for a new park in an era of expansion

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Last Updated: 30-Apr-2002