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The University of Pittsburgh recently acquired nearly 5,000 acres of Wyoming ranch land. Yes, Wyoming. The story of this rare gift is as intriguing as the landscape itself, which is brimming with dinosaur bones, ancient Native American settlements, endangered prairie-dog towns, and more.


Go West


Mark Collins and Cara J. Hayden



  Rancher Allen Cook (left) with Alec Stewart at Pitt’s new home on the range (submitted photo)
 

Emily Knaub walks slowly along a ridge covered with loose stones. A vigorous wind buffets the ridgetop. Knaub, a Pitt senior, is part of a small group of “explorers,” who are trekking across a rolling expanse of Wyoming range that’s bound by mountains piercing the distant horizon. She notices something interesting—a plate-like rock, with a scriggly fissure along its side. She crouches to get a closer look and, as she was taught to do, cracks the rock along the fissure, creating two halves. Inside, she finds the impression of an ancient bone—the remnants of some creature that lived and died under the Wyoming sky more than 100 million years ago.

The rest of the group crowds around Knaub as she holds the two pieces of flat gray rock, one in each hand. Heads crane forward to get a look—“heads” meaning both literal noggins and leaders of academic departments and museums. More than 50 people from at least three institutions have gathered here at Spring Creek, a large stretch of arid terrain on a cattle ranch near Medicine Bow, Wyoming.

Knaub’s split rock contains what appears to be a jawline and several distinct teeth. In one morning—traversing maybe 50 acres of nearly 5,000 in Spring Creek—the group has encountered plenty of curiosities to pause over. Still, this simple bone commands attention. Group member Zhe-Xi Luo, a curator at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History, leans in to examine the fossil. “Congratulations,” he says. “You’ve made the discovery of the day.”

Spring Creek is typical Wyoming land, if there is such a thing: dry, pockmarked with sagebrush, few trees, and fewer people. There’s the ever-present wind, an enormous sky that foretells the incoming weather, and a strange silence that’s interrupted only by the hooting whistle of a Union Pacific train. Here, too, there’s the quick jolt of the unexpected—a jack rabbit with its surprise! burst of speed and the sudden bark of a prairie dog that half-surfaces to check out its surroundings.

In many ways, Spring Creek amounts to a treasure-trove of all things Western: relics of Indian life, native grasslands, wild animals, and a record of ancient life on the range.

Now, the University of Pittsburgh has an unprecedented opportunity to explore this landscape in depth. Through a set of extraordinary circumstances, a generous cattle rancher named Allen Cook deeded 4,700 acres of his Wyoming ranch land to the University last year. Pitt now owns the Spring Creek property.

That’s how Knaub, a 21-year-old Pitt biology major from York, Pa., found herself at the center of attention as Luo, a world-renowned expert on early mammal life, leaned in for a closer look at her fossil—along with professors, students, museum staff, paleontologists, archaeologists, geologists, anthropologists, and assorted others. Luo, who also is the Carnegie Museum’s associate director for research and collections, recognized immediately that the rock contained a jaw segment from a primeval fish—perhaps from the days when a huge, shallow sea stretched from the Arctic Ocean to Colorado, or later, when dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures roamed on land, occasionally getting trapped in marshes or mud pits. The West has always had a peculiar mix of mystery and immensity, a place where discoveries aren’t measured by days or hours or even centuries, but by another scale entirely. Here, the relentless wind scrapes the surface raw and the wide-open terrain buckles and bulges, revealing remnants of passing time.

By all accounts, the Spring Creek property is an amazing piece of land. It contains a rare conflluence of three distinct rock formations that run through several Western states—the Morrison, Sundance, and Cloverly formations, which offer a time capsule of geologic history, rich in evidence of life dating back 150 million years to the Jurassic Period. That means it’s dinosaur country.

Much of the Morrison, which contains sediments of ancient rivers and floodplains, was mined for its dinosaur riches when adventurers and museum specialists combed the region in the late 1800s. One of the biggest finds was Diplodocus carnegii—a long-necked dinosaur, spanning about 84 feet. Discovered and excavated from the Morrison Formation in 1899 by paleontologists from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the specimen remains among the largest examples of Diplodocus ever found. Today, a life-size replica of the dinosaur—nicknamed Dippy—stands in front of the museum on Forbes Avenue, a block away from the Cathedral of Learning.

Alec Stewart, dean of the University’s Honors College, can see the Dippy statue from his 36th-floor Cathedral office. The Pitt story of Spring Creek begins with him. Six years ago, late on a September night, his home phone started ringing. “It must have been about 10 o’clock,” he recalls. It was his longtime friend Bill Mundy, a land economist and real estate appraiser. Stewart describes him as a guy who “specializes in putting economic value on weird things—Exxon Valdez reparations or Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument.” The call, too, was about something unusual: There’s a huge ranch in Wyoming, and the owner might be interested in Pitt obtaining it for a field campsite.

“I said, ‘Call me back when you’re sober,’” says Stewart.

Mundy was sober. He told Stewart about Cook, a Louisiana native with a master’s degree in psychology who, in the twists and turns of life, became a Wyoming rancher. Cook had no ties to Pitt, but Mundy—who was advising the rancher—told him about the University of Pittsburgh and its connections to Wyoming, specifically the Honors College’s popular Yellowstone Field Study, a monthlong course held every summer for students interested in ecology, history, and environmental politics.

Cook was intrigued enough that Mundy made that late-night call. “Honestly, I didn’t think anything would come of it,” says Stewart, “but there was no harm in pursuing it. I’m an eternal optimist. And now it has borne more fruit than anyone ever dreamed.”

So, why would a Wyoming cattleman donate thousands of acres of pristine ranch land to a university he has never seen in a city he has never visited?

Stewart says that something about Pitt’s approach seemed to resonate with the rancher from the start. Two months after Mundy’s phone call, Stewart ventured to the ranch in subzero temperatures during a howling blizzard. He was with Ed McCord, the Honors College program director, who had already begun collaborating with Carnegie Museum paleontologists and had brainstormed about educational uses for the land. Cook led them around the property on snowmobiles, following paths carved by a steam shovel. Mostly, they relaxed in Cook’s home, getting to know each other.

“He’s a straight shooter,” Stewart reflected afterwards. “We have a lot in common—I grew up in central Washington, and we ended up talking about rural life. You can tell a lot about a rancher by how he keeps his gates, how he maintains the land. And Allen maintains the land.”
Land management means a lot in Wyoming—to ranchers, of course, but also to researchers. That’s a key reason Pitt’s new property is such an extraordinary gift. Spring Creek remains untouched by any excavation because, during the era of gold-chasers and dinosaur diggers, it was private land where trespassers weren’t welcome. An article by Guy Gugliotta in the Aug. 13, 2006, Washington Post Magazine describes the property as “the richest undisturbed cache of dinosaur fossils in North America.”

In 1999, when Cook first learned of Spring Creek’s dinosaur heritage, his instincts were in line with his conservation-minded philosophy. He wanted to preserve the land and its unique history. So he got in touch with Mundy—Stewart’s boyhood friend—whose other unusual property valuations include contaminated brownfields and California’s redwood forest.

“It seems like serendipity, but that’s not true,” Stewart says of the path to acquiring Spring Creek. “It was years of work—mostly in the hands Ed McCord.” They thought the deal was dead a couple of times. There had been plans to buy the whole ranch, plans to work with other agencies—but they all fell through. And Cook had other land suitors, too.

Then, last fall, Stewart was surprised—and elated—when the rancher called unexpectedly, saying he wanted to try again with a smaller piece of land—Spring Creek. The papers, deeding the land to Pitt, were signed soon afterward, in December 2005, with the rare gift valued at $7 million. Even greater worth lies in the land’s educational and scientific value for generations to come.

The University of Pittsburgh’s world-class experts will collaborate with the Carnegie Museum, the University of Wyoming, and probably others to turn the property into an unprecedented educational laboratory.

“That’s what I was hoping for—institutions working together,” Cook says. “You get more horsepower that way. That’s why I kept coming back to Pitt, because of those opportunities.”

This past June, Stewart and McCord organized a contingent of faculty, students, and collaborators to see the property firsthand and consider the possibilities. What they determined was that earlier explorers of the bone-and-fossil-rich West had merely scratched the surface, so to speak.

“The June trip was a gratifying affirmation of possibilities,” Stewart says. “The promise exceeded expectations.”

 

The Spring Creek group came back with tales of practically stumbling over dinosaur bones and fossils. Some were discovered by cracking rocks by hand—as Knaub did in finding the ancient jawbone. In other instances, dinosaur bone fragments poked through the surface like compound fractures writ large.

Dinosaurs may well have been the top species of their day, but mammals, plants, and other critters also thrived. While the 19th century’s stereotypic bone hunters looked for the biggest thighbone of the biggest dinosaur, they often overlooked other fossils that were equally interesting. Unlike the already-explored areas of Wyoming and surrounding states—where much was thrown aside or destroyed in favor of bigger dino prizes—Spring Creek likely holds a slew of smaller, undiscovered species and lots of new information about the Jurassic era’s ecosystem.

Also, the first humans who arrived in North America about 13,000 years ago—a blink of an eye in geologic time—left a tantalizingly incomplete record, ripe for more investigation. Already, archaeologists and anthropologists have found a Native American campsite at Spring Creek, evident by the circles of stones used to secure tepees. They also found an arrowhead quarry and evidence of ancient cooking pits.

Undoubtedly, Spring Creek offers a prime opportunity for research about Native American inhabitants.

The prairie dogs living in colonies throughout Spring Creek are remarkable, too. Their habitat—which is increasingly endangered—amounts to a sea of small, deep holes, all carefully and tenaciously dug out, making a home out of this inhospitable setting. All sorts of invertebrates, birds, mammals, reptiles, and even amphibians take cover in these burrows, which dot Pitt’s new land. Pronghorn antelope are abundant, if you know how to spot them against the grey-brown landscape. Golden eagles soar above herds of elk. The ecosystem is an excellent model for environmental experts and students.

Then there are the legendary cowboy towns not too far away, at least by Western standards: Medicine Bow, Cheyenne, Laramie. The stomping grounds of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are within easy pickup-truck distance. And other outlaws—like Kid Curry and Big-Nose George—knew this territory well, too. In fact, Spring Creek may be the perfect setting for an English course on the romance of the West, or a history course on pioneers and the great Western migration, or a studio arts course on landscape painting.

In many ways, that’s really the point of the gift and the ultimate reason Cook chose Pitt. The land will be used to educate students.

So that is the real discovery. Although the ancient jawbone found by Knaub may enjoy attention for now, the rest of the story remains to be told. Hundreds of millions of years went into the rock formation of the Allen L. Cook Spring Creek Preserve of the University of Pittsburgh.

Now, generations of undergraduate and graduate students will work alongside top researchers—and prairie dogs—to open a new chapter in Pitt lore. The modern story of Spring Creek is just beginning.

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