Toll Agency Plans to Store, Display Prehistoric Bones

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A scientifically significant collection of 10,000 prehistoric animal bones uncovered during construction of an Orange County toll road is about to find a home.

Under a plan the Transportation Corridor Agencies unveiled Thursday, 40 of the bones will be exhibited at the Old Courthouse Museum in Santa Ana for the first time next month, and the rest will be turned over to the county for storage and study.

TCA board member Todd Spitzer, who is also a county supervisor, called the action an important first step toward maintaining the county's collection of prehistoric bones. "It's time for the whole county to realize that we have the responsibility of cataloging and displaying these artifacts properly."

The board's action ends speculation that the collection would be turned over to a scientific institution outside of Orange County.

The bones were found during the 1992-95 excavation of the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor, a 15-mile toll road connecting Newport Beach to San Juan Capistrano.

County paleontologists have said the bones are of major scientific importance.

"It represents a quantum leap in paleontology," said Steve Conkling, director of the Orange County Natural History Assn. and a consultant on the project. Bones not identified or studied, he said, are useless.

"If you collect fossils without data, you're just collecting curiosities and doorstops."

Among other things, scientists say, the bones--which include the remains of ancient whales, sea lions, dolphins and mastodons--have helped them paint a detailed picture of a prehistoric Southern California once covered by avocado trees that were 60 feet high.

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Workers have unearthed another 30,000 prehistoric bones while excavating the Eastern/Foothill Transportation Corridor still under construction in the southern part of the county. Taken together, some scientists have suggested, the breadth of the collection puts Orange County on a par with Los Angeles' La Brea Tar Pits in terms of scientific importance.

TCA board members last year rejected a staff recommendation that at least some of the bones be donated to UC Riverside. The suggestion was prompted, TCA spokeswoman Lisa Telles said, by the fact that Orange County has no major natural history museum and the 10,000-square-foot warehouse it maintains for paleontological specimens was full.

The San Joaquin Hills specimens have been stored at the offices of Conkling's paleontological consulting firm in Irvine, while the bones found along the Eastern/Foothill Transportation Corridor have remained in a Quonset hut on TCA property in south Orange County.

Under the plan revealed Thursday, the best San Joaquin Hills bones will be displayed from April 4 to Sept. 25 at the Old Courthouse Museum, a county-owned facility in Santa Ana. After September, about half of them will be divided into four traveling exhibits for display at city halls, office buildings, county parks, schools and other public facilities.

Eventually, the rest of the bones will be housed at the county warehouse--which has been reorganized and expanded--and on a portion of the Tustin Marine Corps Air Facility, which the county is negotiating to acquire.

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While the plan unveiled Thursday covers only the 10,000 specimens found along the San Joaquin Hills toll road, Spitzer said, he hopes to ultimately expand it to include all of Orange County's prehistoric animal bones. "It has really disturbed me greatly that, because of our limited financial resources, we have been warehousing these artifacts or shipping them out of the county," he said. "We have such a vast number of artifacts to be displayed that I'm confident there are enough to go around."

Among other things, Spitzer said, he is talking to scientists at Cal State Fullerton about the possibility of exhibiting some bones at a paleontological facility being constructed on that campus.

"I think it's critical that we have one research institution overseeing this whole project," he said. "I think it's beyond the county's scope."

TCA officials, meanwhile, said they are excited about the upcoming exhibit.

"It's very important," said Laura Eisenberg, the agency's principle environmental analyst. "It's taking something that's been in the ground for millions of years and putting it on display for the people of Orange County. That hasn't happened very often."

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