Setting Up a Paleozoic Park in New Mexico

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In the spring of 2009, the United States government added a 280-million-year-old fossil site to its list of national monuments: a 5,280-acre parcel of land in southern New Mexico that will be called Paleozoic Trackways National Monument. The national park, which has been studied by scientists and quarried by amateurs since the late 1980s, will protect the traces of an ecosystem that was present millions of years before the first dinosaurs evolved, when our own ancient relatives, early synapsids such as Dimetrodon, were the dominant vertebrates on land. Now that the land has been set aside, however, the question is how to regulate activities in the park.

While the legislation to set up the park was moving through Congress, some local off-roading groups opposed the establishment of the monument. They feared that the establishment of the park would prevent them from enjoying their hobby, but this does not appear to be the case. Off-road recreation will still be allowed in the park as long as it does not threaten the natural resources within it, authorities say, although it remains to be seen whether off-road enthusiasts will be satisfied with the parts of the park they will be allowed to use.

And wayward off-roaders are not the only threat to the fossils. Theft and vandalism are a constant worry. Park officials are trying to determine how to best share the fossils with the public but also protect them so that future generations can come see them. The Bureau of Land Management, which is currently overseeing the park, will hold a meeting this month to gather public input on this and other issues of concern as the plan for the "Paleozoic Park" starts to come together.

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