Scenic Wheeler County, Oregon's least populated, slid into recession in the late 1970s and just stayed there.

Its 1,550 residents survived the loss of the county's only major lumber mill, along with the timber town of Kinzua, and the county's near-bankruptcy in the 1990s.

In 2001, Wheeler County enlisted local, state, and federal partners in a new venture called the Paleo Project.

The Paleo Project will transform underused Wheeler High in Fossil into a home base for learning about the natural history of the John Day Basin.

As Wheeler County Judge Jeanne Burch said: "We looked around us and realized that our future may well be in the rocks."

Oregon's 10,000 square mile Paleo Lands contain North America's most complete record of the earth's last 50 million years. Massive mudflows and ashfalls captured complete communities in Oregon's earliest native forests and grasslands.

Among these early Oregonians were rhinos and crocodiles, miniature horses and mouse deer, and large land turtles. They lived with sabre-tooth cats, super-bears, terminator pigs, and other fearsome predators.

The Paleo Lands offer one of the world's best places to understand major climate changes, before they happen again.

Since 2002, the Paleo Project has completed a development plan and facilities master plan, launched new education programs, and set the stage for major facility and program expansion in 2005-07.

North Central Oregon is ready for rural renewal, with pioneering efforts like the Oregon Paleo Project. Local sentiment insists, "Extinction of our communities is not an option" (Editorial, Blue Mountain Eagle, June 27, 2001).

The nonprofit Oregon Paleo Lands Institute seeks, with its partners and area residents, to help Northwest residents and visitors to explore, understand and enjoy north central Oregon's ancient and living landscapes and cultures.

The Paleo Project cooperates with the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Hancock Field Station in Clarno, and the Warm Springs Tribes Pine Creek Conservation Area. Other educational partners include the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Oregon Department of Geology, Fossil Schools and the North Central ESD.

With expert instructors from throughout Oregon, PaleoScene classes covered the region, from geology, paleontology, butterflies, and bats to raptors, reptiles, local history, botany and birds. PaleoScene pulled local residents and people from all over Oregon (Sisters, John Day, Portland, Prineville, and Bend) and eastern Washington to participate in the Science Saturday classes or multiday classes.

For more information, contact Richard Ross,


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