A wealth of fossils and prehistoric artifacts unearthed in Orange County may be sorted, studied and put on public display as part of a wide-ranging proposal due for a vote by the Board of Supervisors this week.
Officials say the plan could signal a new era in how the county handles the whale fossils, Native American artifacts and other treasures discovered during excavation for housing, highways and other projects. Thousands of the items have been stored haphazardly in a cluttered warehouse, unsorted and away from public view.
"Obviously, this is a problem that is seeking a solution, and obviously, the county has a responsibility," said Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who has taken a lead role in trying to change the situation. "I'm very encouraged that we were able to get this program together to get these 20 years of problems solved."
For more than a decade, county government has required that artifacts from county-permitted projects remain within the county. But it has never provided a scientific system to sort them or a museum to exhibit them. Nor have local officials followed the lead of other counties that charge developers for storage and cataloging costs.
Instead, the artifacts and fossils, some of which experts say are millions of years old, sit in bulging cartons in an old metal-walled Santa Ana warehouse crammed so full that some specimens have been left outside in rain, sun and wind, The Times reported in March. Until recently, some fossils, encased in plaster, sat on asphalt covered by thin sheets of plastic.
One scientific crew found a baleen whale fossil that could be 22 million years old resting under the edge of a sloping roof, its plaster casing apparently so weakened by water damage that scientists chose not to move it.
The Board of Supervisors is set to vote Tuesday on a $420,000 three-year program in which consultants would be hired to care for fossils and artifacts. And, in a step unprecedented for Orange County, developers may be charged fees when they turn the artifacts over to the county, providing money to continue the program. A decision on fees will be made later, officials said.
"That's something we're definitely going to look at in terms of long-range sustenance," said Spitzer, who plans a news conference at the warehouse today to offer details of the plan.
The county has made changes to improve conditions at the warehouse in recent weeks, repairing the roof of a nearby building so that some fossils could be moved there. A shelter was built over other specimens stored outside, and more were moved under the overhang of another building.
"We've almost doubled our capacity in storage," said Tim Miller, county manager of harbors, beaches and parks. He praised the county proposal, including plans for public interpretive exhibits in county parks.
"How many kids get to get up close and touch Indian arrowheads and things like that that actually came out of Orange County?" asked Miller, whom some local paleontologists credit for helping to move the plans along.
The key to the program is hiring consultants to manage the warehouse, and catalog and prepare the fossils and artifacts. Supervisors on Tuesday could set in motion the process to solicit bids for that job.
The bulk of the funding would come from a $300,000 federal grant earmarked for archeological materials from road projects, with another $50,000 from the county and $70,000 from the Transportation Corridor Agencies to handle materials from the San Joaquin Hills toll road construction.
More study is needed before developer fees are set, officials said. But an initial report lists the fee of $200 per cubic foot for collections that are cataloged, stored and stabilized--a figure that David Whistler, a curator of paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, said is in line with what his institution charges.
A spokeswoman for the Transportation Corridor Agencies said officials there would need to know more about the fee proposal to comment.
Even so, spokeswoman Lisa Telles said, "The TCA's supportive of the county putting together a plan that will alleviate the problems."
At the Irvine Co., a major county developer, a spokesman said through a staff member that he had not seen the county proposal and could not comment.
Several paleontologists also said they had not seen the proposal and so could not discuss its merits.
Lawrence G. Barnes, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Los Angeles County museum, said county officials should not underestimate the job ahead.
"I've seen so many genuine efforts go awry with this Orange County effort in the past," he said.
A proposal several years ago to create a natural history museum was derailed. The nonprofit Natural History Foundation of Orange County went bankrupt in 1992 after receiving $250,000 from TCA and $300,000 from the Irvine Co., souring many people on the potential for a museum.
"I'm hoping that people who are looking at this report don't think it's going to curate everything. It won't," said Barnes after scanning the county report Friday.
"There's so much to do with catch-up right now," Barnes said. "There's hundreds of person-years of cleaning there before they can get to curation." And before they clean the specimens, they have to organize them and reconstruct data from what field notes remain, he said. He expressed concern that no paleontologist is listed on the advisory committee for the program.
Still, some county officials say the proposal shows significant progress in how valuable artifacts are protected, adding that it opens the door for scientific study of the materials--and perhaps a natural history museum in Orange County someday.
Spitzer said he has been working with Cal State Fullerton to see if such a museum could be established on campus.
"I think it's so important for the community, and also the academic community," he said. "These items are just sitting on the shelf."