The McAbee Fossil Beds site has been badly damaged over the years, and Dr. Bruce Archibald — who has studied the site for decades — fears more damage might be done. Photo: Wendy Coomber.

Government’s treatment of McAbee Fossil Beds called ‘cynical and irresponsible’

Dr. Bruce Archibald fears the site — already severely damaged — will return to the ‘bad old days’.

Dr. Bruce Archibald, a paleoentomologist who has studied the McAbee Fossil Beds for decades, is worried about McAbee’s future, citing what he calls the provincial government’s “cynical and irresponsible” treatment of the 53-million-year-old beds east of Cache Creek.

Archibald has argued to the government that the site—which he feels is good enough to receive UNESCO World Heritage designation—needs to be overseen by trained paleontologists who have the expertise to ensure it is treated properly. However, he is disheartened to see that this recommendation is not being heeded.

“I’ve been told directly by the Heritage Branch [of the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations, and Rural Development, or FLNROD] that the Bonaparte Indian Band, the Friends of McAbee, and Thompson Rivers University will oversee the site, with the Bonaparte Band in charge,” says Archibald.

He adds that he believes there is a role at McAbee for all these groups, but managing the site is not that role.

“There needs to be proper expertise involved with this site. The stated values of the province, when it comes to McAbee, are heritage first, then scientific research, education, and regional economic development, in that order. Now it looks as if the focus is on tourism, with a little bit of education via TRU. They’re going back to the bad old days.”

The “bad old days” Archibald refers to date back prior to 2012, when the McAbee Fossil Beds were in private hands. Commercial fossil mining and “dig your own fossils” were allowed at the site; there was even a permit granted which allowed fossils to be crushed to make absorbent kitty litter.

Archibald recounts the sight of amateur rock hounds and commercial fossil dealers scrambling over McAbee, digging up and removing priceless fossils with no oversight or accountability, and causing irreparable damage to the site.

“Talk of reinstating U-dig fossils is astounding. The majority of the site has been destroyed, scraped back to the walls. If the Ministry wants to do the right thing they’ll be good stewards and protect what’s there, and the only way to do that is with proper scientific expertise.

“Tourism and education will flow from scientific knowledge.”

His protests to Victoria have fallen on deaf ears, with one bureaucrat suggesting that since so much damage has already occurred, there is no need for the site to be protected: a statement Archibald compares to someone arguing that if most of the Louvre Museum burned down, the surviving paintings should be tossed in the fire as well.

After a prolonged campaign to salvage what was left of the beds, the provincial government declared McAbee a heritage site in 2012, bought out the mining permits, and closed it to commercial operations. In 2016 the McAbee Working Group (now the Friends of McAbee) was established to examine ways forward for the site, and Archibald was asked by the province to evaluate existing best practices for management of important comparable fossil sites in western North America.

Archibald found that well-established practices could be applied at McAbee to conserve heritage values, foster and maximize research and education, and create sustainable regional economic benefits in an area that has been hit hard by flooding and wildfires. The well-run John Day Fossil Beds in a remote part of Oregon attract 100,000 visitors a year, who spent $10 million and supported 141 jobs in the last year reported.

Because of its location on a major highway and its close proximity to the Lower Mainland, the potential for McAbee, if run properly, is huge. However, Archibald says that it looks as if the Province is set to ignore all of his report’s recommendations and farm the management of McAbee out to local interest groups.

“They want to do it on the cheap, which is cheating the people of Cache Creek and Ashcroft. Their plan won’t produce another John Day; it will just be a roadside attraction, and it’s not sustainable.

“The provincial government is more than happy to spend real infrastructure dollars in the Lower Mainland. Why not do it here, in this area? I want the Province to do McAbee right, for the Bonaparte Indian Band, the people of Ashcroft and Cache Creek, and the people of the world. Instead, we’re being played for suckers. The investment they’re proposing is minuscule.”

Archibald says that for every $1 spent on the McAbee site, $10 would come back to help the region. “It would be a solid economic base for the region in perpetuity. It’s a terrific waste of an opportunity here. The Heritage Branch is completely disregarding science, and showing no respect.

“I believe they want to get rid of the site, and do something that’s more interesting to them. There’s been continued inaction by bureaucrats, and I don’t think Ministers have paid attention. It’s a case of ‘Take care of this and let us know.’ It looks as if the Ministry wants to wash their hands of this site.”

The Royal BC Museum recently announced that it has received a donation of an estimated 18,000 specimens from the McAbee site, donated by the late John Leahy (who managed the site while it was under mineral tenure) and his colleague David Langevin. Archibald says it’s wonderful that this large, private collection is coming into public hands.

In the meantime, the McAbee site itself sits in limbo. “My training is paleontolgy,” says Archibald. “I study fossils. This political thing is not me. But I encourage people to write to the Ministry. I think that has a real effect.

“I know that FLNROD minister Doug Donaldson has been busy with this year’s wildfires, so McAbee gets lost in the woodwork, but people should write to him, write to the media. Active citizens is what we’re about in Canada, and making good things happen.

“I want to see this [McAbee] in my lifetime. There’s no good reason we can’t achieve this. We shouldn’t settle for penny-ante, chicken-feed stuff. We can do this.”

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