Nearly seven years after the provincial government declared the McAbee Fossil Beds east of Cache Creek a heritage site, and closed the beds to the public, the site is getting ready to welcome visitors once more, with a soft opening on Friday, June 21.
“We’re calling it a soft opening because there are a lot of unknowns,” says Deb Arnott, general manager of Community Futures Sun Country. She was one of the founders of the McAbee Working Group in April 2016, which was comprised of local volunteers attempting to see the McAbee site developed and reopened.
The group received funding to have a business plan created and do some work at the site. Due to a number of factors — including the 2017 wildfires — work was delayed, but Arnott says that the site is almost ready to start receiving visitors who want to learn more about its 53-million-year-old fossils and its Indigenous history.
Two youth from the Bonaparte Band have been working at the site, and will be there to greet visitors, show them around the site on newly-constructed trails, explain its history, and answer questions. Arnott says they will also be asking for feedback from visitors.
“This is our exploratory year,” she explains. “The youth will talk to visitors, ask them why they came there, and what they’d like to see. We’ll get feedback and data so that we can plan for the future. We’re open to advice.”
Arnott says that everyone is welcome to the June 21 opening, which starts at 10 a.m. and will include different speakers — including Indigenous leaders and elders — sharing their stories about the site. After that the site will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday, and Arnott says there will be no charge for access.
“We’re trying to build awareness of the site, and we want the community to feel a part of it. That’s what will make it a success.”
In addition to the new trails, there will be picnic tables at the site, as well as a pit toilet, potable water, and a shelter for protection from the elements. Gravel will be put down in the parking lot, and new fencing and a new gate will be erected. Arnott says that if there is a slow day with few visitors, the two youth at the site can work on the trails.
“They’ve both worked at the site in the past. They’ve studied its plants and fossils, know how everything fits in with Indigenous culture, and been a big part of the work there. We want them to take ownership and leadership of the site.”
Funding for the youth is being provided by the Heritage Branch, and stewardship is being provided by Community Futures Sun Country. Arnott says that funding for the students is only in place for this summer, as they gather information. After that she says they will see what worked and what didn’t work.
“Our goal is to have it open as long as possible [this year], while our long-term goal is to have a permanent centre there. The business plan developed for the McAbee Working Group is being used as a blueprint. We need to decide what structures we want to see there, what the cost would be, and what kind of funding we need.”
The McAbee Fossil Beds are part of a former lake bed that was deposited more than 50 million years ago. Over time insects, leaves, feathers, pollen, and more sank to the lake bed, where they were covered by layers of fine silt and preserved as fossils. The site is recognized as containing the most diverse array of plants and insects from the Eocene Epoch in the entire province.
The site is also of cultural and historic importance to Indigenous people, and Arnott says she has been meeting regularly with the Bonaparte Band chief and council, as well as community members, to keep them informed. She notes, however, that the site is for everyone.
“It’s a regional project that everyone should benefit from. We all need to benefit from it.”