Visitors to the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center at John Day Fossil Beds are now greeted by a couple of long-time Grant County residents. They've been here since the deep past. They are two well-preserved sections of petrified trees.
These magnificent specimens are a gift to the residents of Grant County, and to people from all over the world who visit here, from our friend and local rancher Rick Page.
In a previous "Fossil Record" story (Sept. 6, 2006), we described the specimens when we first saw them in their original location, high above the town of John Day near Benson Spring. You could actually see them from below, in town, if you knew just where to look.
Rick proved his prowess as a fossil logger by managing to wrestle the 8,000-pound specimens onto a lowboy, carried them down the steep road to pavement, and finally downstream 40 miles through Picture Gorge. We unloaded them as carefully as we could using our biggest backhoe, and set them up in the border of the Paleo Center parking lot, where you can see them today.
The tree specimens are related to modern sequoias, and are remnants of a very ancient forest. Normally, it's very easy for us to determine the age of the rock that certain kinds of fossils are buried in. These trees occur very near a buried fault separating the 44 million-year-old Clarno Formation from the much younger Mascall Formation, deposited about 16 million years ago. Based on many other similar trees, we're now pretty sure these are from the Clarno, but will have to do a bit more fieldwork to be absolutely certain.
Imagine these trees sprouting, living for a few hundred years, and then dying. It appears they were buried in a volcanic mudflow, from a volcano much older than the one that gave rise to the nearby Strawberry Mountain that looms over the site today.
Think how different things were when they were alive. The climate was much warmer: mean annual temperature of near 80 degrees (today, it's 48). Things were much wetter: That site used to receive over 80 inches of rain a year when those trees were growing, compared to today's 15 or so. There was no Cascade Range of mountains, so no rainshadow like today that limits moisture.
Oceanfront property was much closer and the Willamette Valley was a bay in a deep ocean. Bananas, palms, and crocodiles lived here. We can only imagine what kinds of creatures inhabited its branches. One of the stumps looks like something was gnawing on it.
Thanks to the exceptional generosity of Rick, now hundreds of thousands of people can peer closely at these gnarly pieces of the past, previously known only to a handful of folks. He wins my vote as Grant County's Paleo-logger of the decade!
Ted Fremd is a paleontologist and National Park Service science advisor at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.