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It All Remains to Be Seen

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some prehistoric fossils still sit in their plaster jackets in a Santa Ana parking lot, but now they are sheltered from rain and sun by a newly built wooden roof.

Other fossils have been moved into a warehouse nearby where recent roof repairs provide a dry haven.

Just a few months ago, these fossils of whales and other ancient creatures--clues to Orange County life millions of years ago--lay on damp asphalt outside a county warehouse, shielded from the El Nino rains by only thin, tattered plastic sheets.

But the recent changes signal a new era in how Orange County treats its fossils and other relics, county officials said Monday as they proudly touted a program due for a vote today by the Board of Supervisors.

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The three-year program is aimed at sorting, protecting and displaying some of the wealth of relics that have sat for years in a hot, metal-walled warehouse, virtually forgotten in a county that lacked the funds and staff to deal with them.

“Today we will change 20 years of Orange County history to protect 20 million years of natural history,” predicted County Supervisor Todd Spitzer at a news conference outside the warehouse.

But some experts warn that considerable work lies ahead, and that the county should not underestimate the massive undertaking of dealing with thousands of fossils, bones and prehistoric tools that have accumulated.

They are urging the county to ask independent scientists to review plans to assure museum-quality standards are achieved.

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Orange County has required for many years that relics from county-permitted projects remain within the county. But the county lacks a natural history museum or even an organized cataloging system.

And, unlike surrounding counties, Orange County failed to charge developers for storing and keeping track of the relics.

“It is a crisis problem,” said Patricia Martz, former chairwoman of the state Historical Resources Commission and professor of anthropology at Cal State Los Angeles. But, she added, “This is a really hopeful sign, because for so long, there just hasn’t been any concern over it. It’s just good that they’re taking some responsibility.”

Archeologist Keith Dixon, a member of the Orange County Historical Commission, said the plan “is excellent in every way. It’s consistent with the best programs.”

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A key element is the hiring of consultants who will manage the warehouse and develop policies, a fee schedule and a curatorial program. Supervisors could vote today to start soliciting proposals from archeologists and paleontologists to do the job, with proposals due July 24.

Some think those proposals should undergo so-called peer review by independent scientists with no stake in the outcome. Many area archeologists and paleontologists already receive substantial income from working for developers, some of whom may be affected by the county proposal, including the new fees. The county plan calls for a three-person committee to review the consultants’ proposals but does not specify their qualifications.

“These three individuals should be independent persons who don’t have any conflict of interest, because you could get someone who’s going to be hired by one of these firms,” Martz said. Perhaps the county could enlist the help of scientists from state agencies, museums or universities, she said.

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Obtaining advice from major museums accredited by the American Assn. of Museums would “lead them on the track of having an accredited storage facility and museum,” added Robert Reynolds, curator of earth sciences for the San Bernardino County museum system.

“It’s peer review that they’re not getting now, or they wouldn’t be in the problem they’re in,” Reynolds said. “It’s peer review that will lead them to develop [an] appropriate curatorial facility and a better facility to tell the history of Orange County over the past 100 million years.”

In response, Rob Selway, county chief of historical programs, said he hopes the review will include people with independent expertise in archeology and paleontology.

Money for the three-year program would come from a $300,000 federal grant and $50,000 in county funds.

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The county also has received $70,000 from the Transportation Corridor Agencies for handling relics from the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor.


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