John Day Fossil Beds: A Study (Preliminary)
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Geology and Paleontology

Of the natural, scientific, and recreational resources within the area of study, those of paramount importance are scientific. Specifically, they are those resources concerned with geology and paleontology, including paleobotany.

A plaque designating the Thomas Condon-John Day Fossil Beds State Park as a Registered Natural Landmark was presented to the State of Oregon on March 1, 1967. Thus the national significance of the fossil beds and their exceptional value and importance in illustrating the natural history of the United States is recognized and established.

The paleontological and associated resources of the Upper John Day Basin were evaluated for purposes of this study by Dr. J. Arnold Shotwell, Director of the Museum of Natural History, University of Oregon. Dr. Shotwell's report, submitted to the National Park Service on July 20, 1967, contains the following conclusions:

"The primary significance of the John Day Basin is in the record of Earth History, displayed in its rocks and fossils covering a considerable portion of time."

His report concludes further:

"There is no question(s) of the national or even international significance of the John Day Basin. It has been clear for one hundred years. Neither is there any question of the clarity of the story to be seen by the visitor; this is its chief value."

"Other areas . . . Dinosaur, Agate Springs, Badlands and Florissant, all deal with single chapters or some unique aspect of single chapters in the history of life. The John Day Basin offers an entire book!"

"Nature has provided in the John Day Basin a unique opportunity to see Earth History under the most desirable conditions."

Dr. Shotwell supports his evaluation and conclusions with statements quoted from three widely recognized authorities: Thomas Condon, who conducted most of the initial research on the geologic history of the area, beginning in 1864; Dr. J. C. Merriam of the University of California and the Carnegie Institution; and R. W. Chaney, who conducted extensive research on the fossil flora of the area about 10 years ago.

In 1948, the last named authority said:

"No State is more richly endowed with the records of earth history. No region in the world shows a more complete sequence of Tertiary land populations, both plant and animal, than the John Day Basin."

The Shotwell report was submitted for verification to Dr. Theodore E. White, Paleontologist, Dinosaur National Monument; and to Dr. J. T. Dutro, Jr., Chief, Paleontology and Stratigraphy Branch, U.S. National Museum, Smithsonian Institution. Both scientists have indicated by letter that they are in full agreement with Dr. Shotwell's conclusions and recommendations.

The Cant Ranch showing ranch buildings and irrigated land bordering the John Day River. This ranch has been in continuous operation by the same family for 100 years. Continued operation would be compatible with a John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.


Scenic Resources

The colorful exposures of the John Day Formation and the high buttes, escarpments, and pinnacles formed by the Columbia River Basalts and the Clarno exposures in Wheeler County and the western part of Grant County present a pleasing and quite impressive scenic landscape. This is particularly true of the countryside along State Highway 19 from its junction with U.S. 26 at Picture Gorge north to Kimberly and on north and west to the communities of Spray, Service Creek, Fossil, and Clarno; adjacent to State Route 207 from Service Creek southward to Mitchell on U.S. 26; along State Route 208 from Kimberly east to Monument and Long Creek; and along north-south U.S. 395 from Long Creek to Mount Vernon.

The John Day River is normally an attractive, clear-flowing stream. However, it becomes extremely low or sometimes dry in late summer. While the landscape values of the area are of definite interest and appeal to the visitor, they are not outstanding or spectacular in the sense of a Canyonlands landscape, for example, and they are not of national importance.


The historic resources of the John Day Basin present typical evidences of frontier activities and development. They are primarily of State or local significance.


The archeological resources of the Upper John Day River Basin were assessed by David L. Cole, Curator of Anthropology, University of Oregon Museum of Natural History. Cole's report of July 24, 1967 contains the following conclusion as to their significance:

"At the present time, there are no archeological sites known in the region of the John Day River drainage that deserve the status of being nationally important. However, the region is essentially unknown archeologically. In the Great Basin, to the south, and along the Columbia River, to the north, there are sites such as Fort Rock Cave [1] and the Five-mile Rapids Site that have the status of having considerable significance. It is not improbable that sites of equal importance could be found in the John Day Basin."

[1] Fort Rock Cave is a designated Registered National Historic Landmark.


The John Day River is quite limited in existing recreation facilities though it has the potential for a number of activities. The higher, forested area surrounding the valley contains extensive recreational resources. Facilities have been developed here to meet present demands, and this area has unlimited possibility for expansion.

Additional opportunities for water-related recreation may be created by the impoundments which are currently proposed by the Bureau of Reclamation. Such opportunities would vary with the combination of impoundments that might be authorized but, in any event, they would be of State or local importance.


1. Scientific research and analysis, verified by qualified authorities, has determined that the geological and paleontological resources of the Upper John Day Basin are definitely of national significance.

2. The limited research conducted to date has revealed no outstanding or nationally significant archeological sites in the basin. However, archeologists believe some may exist.

3. The evaluation resulting from the field investigation made by the National Park Service study team has established that the scenic, historic, and recreation resources of the basin are principally of State or local interest and importance.

Views from State Route 207 near Service Creek. An exposure of John Day Formation appears as the light area in the right photo.

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Last Updated: 07-May-2007