Dinosaur Discovery Site digs up expansion plans, has soft reopening

Conner Bennett holds a fossil at the Dinosaur Track Museum, St. George, Utah, April 15, 2019 | Photo by Mikayla Shoup, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Despite uncertain financial times ahead, the Dinosaur Discover Site at Johnson Farm has focused its future plans on a major expansion across the street from its current location on East Riverside Drive in St. George.

Slabs of dinosaur tracks prepped by volunteer. Photo in lower corner of slab shows work being done on slab prior to uncovering prints, Dinosaur Discovery Site, St. George, Utah, Oct. 31, 2016 | Photo by and courtesy of Jim Lillywhite, St. George News

But it might take some time.

Phased-in construction is planned to start within the next few years and is anticipated to take 20 years to complete depending on fundraising activities.

The city of St. George owns an additional seven acres directly across the road from the museum and that land is believed to be as richly endowed with dinosaur fossils as the current site.

Plans are to build a large covered and climate-controlled structure to house ongoing digs for additional fossil remains. This will allow visitors to view the work of the scientists as they dig for new discoveries.

Additionally, the plans include the construction of a research and repository building to house the hundreds of fossils currently uncovered and new ones yet to be unearthed.

A third building planned will be a structure for a natural history museum space, classroom and administrative office.

“This is something we’ve been working on since about 2005 with the idea we know there are more fossils across the street on St. George city property,” said Diana Azevedo, site executive director. “We want to develop the other side of the street.”

The museum reopened on Saturday after being closed under the previous state coronavirus recommendations on groups and social distancing. The museum will have more limited hours – being open between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. for high-risk individuals and 12 to 5 p.m. for the rest of the general public, while only being open Thursday to Sunday. A full list of current visitor guidelines can be found here.

The Dinosaur Discovery Site has had a decade-long run of growth and expansion. Last year, the site had more than 56,000 visitors.

St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site volunteer Jim Williams busy at work cleaning a coelacanth, a large fish thought to have become extinct 66 million years ago. This specimen along with others were found on the site. St. George, Utah, Feb. 20, 2020 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

From a small number of dinosaur tracks found by a local optometrist on his farm in 2000, the site now has 1,957 cataloged specimens. Visitor growth has allowed the management to significantly expand the viewing areas and exhibits.

“With the expansion, we are hoping to reveal more specimens,” Azevedo said.

When completed, the expansion is anticipated to cost $50 million.

Many scholars have labeled the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site as one of the best dinosaur track sites in the world.

The history of the museum began in 2000 when Dr. Sheldon Johnson, was leveling a hill on his farm.

After removing several feet of topsoil, Johnson discovered a thick layer of sandstone. This layer was a “paleontological jackpot” containing numerous dinosaur footprints.

Within a few months, trained paleontologists from around the state, plus hundreds of volunteers, helped uncover thousands of fossils.

St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm, St. George, Utah, Oct. 31, 2016 | Photo by and courtesy of Jim Lillywhite, St. George News

“The St. George track site is not only the oldest Jurassic dinosaur site in Utah, but it is also the best … site (of its kind) in western North America,” said paleontologist Jim Kirkland in a previous interview.

Within the museum are static displays, including the original sandstone layer dating back 200 million years ago.

The apex predator at the time in Southern Utah would have been Dilophosaurus, an eight-foot-tall dinosaur that would eventually evolve into Tyrannosaurus or T-Rex.

T-Rex was still millions of years away from the time the St. George fossil site was formed.

Including the footprints from larger dinosaurs, there are trace prints from fish, early crocodiles and mammals, Kirkland said.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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