FLORISSANT • A highly secured backroom cooled at 59½ degrees is the graveyard for ancient life.
Herbert Meyer opens drawers, revealing insects and plants trapped in stone 34 million years ago. “That’s called a crane fly,” the Florissant Fossil Beds’ paleontologist says. “There’s a moth ... Let me show you the wasp.”
The wasp is on the national monument’s pamphlets and displayed elsewhere, but it’s by no means the most important of the nearly 1,500 species that once populated this valley.
It is as we know it in a picture hanging here: flat and grassy, the dusty outpost of Teller County’s fringes. The picture is split by a wide river, believed to have stretched 12 miles in the Eocene epoch. Across from today’s landscape, the artist depicts that subtropical time: towering redwood forests overlooked by the volcano that blew, causing a mudflow that preserved the abundance.
In its 50th year, the national monument continues to tell the story.
“Florissantia,” Meyer utters, showing shale keeping the perfect petals of a flower. It’s one he found as the monument’s first and only full-time scientist, hired 25 years ago.
Among early duties was cataloging fossils uncovered before the monument’s 1969 establishment — remains scattered around the world, protected at the Smithsonian, London’s Natural History Museum and New York’s American Museum of Natural History, to name a few.
Some days, Meyer collaborates with paleontologists in Thailand or China. Other days, he’ll communicate with researchers in Russia and Illinois, parties interested in a particular bug wing. And sometimes he’ll analyze data from monitors connected to the monument’s most prominent treasures: massive redwood stumps, crumbling in ways that Meyer is still trying to fully understand.
“There’s a lot to do out here,” he says.
Not that the masses know it. They continue on U.S. 24 through Florissant, off to the higher mountains, passing the turn at County Road 1.
Those who do visit, “all of a sudden, there’s petrified redwood trees, 10 or 12 feet wide,” says Jeff Wolin, the monument’s lead interpreter. “Like, redwoods in Colorado? What? That opens up the story of volcanoes ... And there was a lake here! And tsetse flies and palm trees and three-toed horses.”
Those were the mesohippus, among bizarre beasts of the post-dinosaur age. There was the oreodont, like a hog with fierce jaws. Most imposing was the brontothere, “superficially like a rhinoceros,” Wolin says.
And there were birds, whose relatives today you’d find in Africa, Mexico and parts of Central and South America. “But 34 million years ago, they were here!” Wolin says. His excitement clearly hasn’t faded in 17 years at the park.
That’s because discoveries are constant, he says. For example, archaeologists last summer believe they finally found where Charlotte Hill lived. A depression in the ground matched the location in descriptions, and were the piles of amazonite and smoky quartz of her famous collection?
Hill became the valley’s point person in the 1870s as legend of the fossil beds spread. Researchers flocked, including a crew from Princeton, who trained with Civil War veterans to prepare for the Wild West.
While Gen. William Jackson Palmer was developing his dream for Colorado Springs, a wagon route went out to Florissant’s trading post and gold and buffalo and horses and homesteads and natives and ... massive tree stumps.
A Ute elder once said his people considered the fossil beds the “Valley of the Shadows” for the encased souls that cast shadows. The next settlers saw the petrified woods as money makers.
One owner of the stumps famously greeted Walt Disney in July 1956, writes Meyer alongside conservationist Estella B. Leopold in their book, “Saved in Time.” The stump was sold for $1,650, they write, and shipped to Disneyland, where it remains on display. “Yet another one of the ancient giants disappeared from the site.”
The book also tells of the “bitter feud” between families profiting from other parts of the woods, where tourists climbed the stumps and took souvenir bark. The rivalry was between men named Baker and Singer: “Local stories have it that when Baker went out one day to spread nails along the roadways to keep visitors out of Singer’s place, he was wounded by a shot fired by one of Singer’s guides.”
Leopold was on the side of a later fight. Spurred by the threat of development, she led the rally to protect the fossil beds.
Her account in “Saved in Time” plays out like a Hollywood drama, with a colorful lead character in Victor Yannacone. The brash lawyer — “Sue the bastards!” went his motto — answered Leopold’s call after winning a case against ecologically harmful DDT.
His argument, that the public had a right to the private lands, is considered a landmark. It was a long, harried battle, waged in one courtroom after another, jumping from Senate hearings to the parking lot of the still-standing Thunderbird bar. There, women encircled bulldozers that were stationed at the ready, Leopold writes.
“I remember standing and staring at them,” a child at the time remembered. “They were big and fierce like dinosaurs. ... I felt like I was alone there to face down and stop the bulldozers from breaking all the fossils.”
So they’re here for the kids visiting the monument this day. Wolin greets them.
These are his favorite moments, when they return from the trails and are sworn in as junior rangers. They repeat after him: “I pledge to help protect the fossils, plants, animals and history of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument ...”