Monday, July 12, 2010

Riker Hill

"We always warn our dates that we might not show up. They have to play second string to a dinosaur." - Paul Olsen, from a 1970 Life article

There is plenty to admire in the story of how Paul Olsen rescued the Riker Hill Fossil Site. Located in northern New Jersey, the abandoned quarry drew the teenagers' attention in 1968 when some dinosaur trackways were discovered. Their curiosity ignited, Olsen and his friend Tony Lessa made it their mission to study the quarry's contents.

Soon enough, it became apparent that the site's natural treasures needed protection. Folks were removing fossils, and like so many big holes in the ground, the quarry was being used as a dumping ground. Olsen began a long campaign to rescue the site, pleading the case to authorities local and national, including writing to President Nixon. Eventually, the effort paid off and half of the quarry was donated to the local park authority by the company who owned it, Walter Kidde & Company. A year later, in 1971, the site was granted National Natural Landmark status, mostly an honorary designation - had Kidde not been convinced to donate the land, the site still wouldn't have been protected from development.

Today, Olsen is a paleontologist and professor at Columbia University and an authority on fossil trackways. This is a great case study for how dinosaurs can ignite an interest in science, as UK science minister David Willetts is banking on. I wish someone would have put this article in my hands when I was thirteen and slapped me upside the head. Maybe I would have wasted a lot less time as a teenager. And I would have received a crash course in bureaucracy, as well. Coming through the government agency pinball machine with his sanity intact may be Olsen's greatest accomplishment. I'm especially amazed that he didn't just smile for the camera when Nixon gave him a special commendation for his efforts, but kept asking for protected status.

I haven't been able to find out what Lessa went on to do, but I hope it's awesome and I hope he's doing it while tooling around in this car.

Photo from Life Magazine

More: National Archives, Life Magazine

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