The Federal Government Just Bought a Dinosaur

And it might just have bought a prehistoric crocodile, too.

An exhibit at the open-air exhibition 'World of Dinosaurs' in Kiev, Ukraine.
National Journal
Patrick Reis
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Patrick Reis
Dec. 30, 2013, 10:40 a.m.

Doswell­ia are 7-foot-long car­ni­vor­ous rep­tiles with boxy bod­ies, flat heads, and long necks — and the Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice just bought one a home.

Sa­fari en­thu­si­asts, however, will not get to see the creature in ac­tion. Doswell­ia have been ex­tinct for some­where in the neigh­bor­hood of 200 mil­lion years, and the spe­ci­men in ques­tion is just a skel­et­on. But it’s a rare find, even as fossils go, and pa­le­on­to­lo­gists were ex­cited when they came across the skel­et­on this sum­mer in north­east­ern Ari­zona. Nearby, re­search­ers also found the well-pre­served, 2-foot-long skull of a phyto­saur, a re­l­at­ive of the doswell­ia and a dis­tant an­cest­or of the mod­ern cro­codile.

And re­search­ers say that be­neath both finds, they’ve found the pet­ri­fied and fos­sil­ized re­mains of a pre­his­tor­ic pond eco­sys­tem, full of pre­his­tor­ic fish, am­phi­bi­ans, plants and rep­tiles.

All of this was too much for the Park Ser­vice to res­ist, and on Monday the ser­vice an­nounced that it had bought the formerly private land for pre­ser­va­tion and fur­ther ex­cav­a­tion. In total, the ser­vice pur­chased 4,265 acres (just over 6.5 square miles). The land will now be­come part of the Pet­ri­fied Forest Na­tion­al Park, a 146-square-mile stretch of pro­tec­ted wil­der­ness in Ari­zona that is — as its name sug­gests — rich hunt­ing ground for fossil find­ers.

The land was pur­chased for about $1.3 mil­lion with funds from the Land and Wa­ter Con­ser­va­tion Fund, a pro­gram that uses roy­al­ties from off­shore oil and gas drilling to buy high-pri­or­ity land. Ad­di­tion­al sup­port came from an an­onym­ous private donor, the Park Ser­vice says.

Put­ting the land in­to fed­er­al con­ser­va­tion will keep park vis­tas pristine, the ser­vice said in a re­lease. The ar­id area fea­tures sev­er­al high-el­ev­a­tion sites from which to sur­vey its col­or­ful rock form­a­tions.

Des­pite the use of roy­alty fees — rather than dir­ect tax­pay­er con­tri­bu­tions — new fed­er­al land ac­quis­i­tions are fre­quently con­tro­ver­sial in Con­gress, as west­ern Re­pub­lic­ans have ques­tioned why the ser­vice would ac­quire more land at a time when it has a mult­i­bil­lion-dol­lar main­ten­ance back­log on its ex­ist­ing hold­ings.

But this pur­chase had a strong loc­al back­ing, in­clud­ing from Demo­crat­ic Rep. Ann Kirk­patrick — who cited the park’s eco­nom­ic be­ne­fits through tour­ism — and Re­pub­lic­an Sen. John Mc­Cain.

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