No Home for the Bones

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For more than a decade, Orange County has required that fossils and other artifacts that are dug up by developers with county permits remain within its borders.

But unlike its neighbors, the county never established a bona fide museum where million-year-old whale bones and other treasures can be researched by scientists and viewed by children. The county has also failed to charge developers for storing and cataloging these prehistoric relics, a practice that helps bolster museum collections in some neighboring counties.

Instead, Orange County's artifacts sit in a shabby metal warehouse behind barbed wire in Santa Ana, stuffed to overflowing with thousands of relics hidden from sight in bulging, aging boxes. Dozens of cracked, eroding plaster jackets containing rare fossils lie outside in the parking lot.

Dreams of a museum collapsed more than five years ago when a nonprofit natural history foundation fell apart in a morass of bankruptcy and bitterness. County government officials, burdened with these leftovers of lucrative housing projects and other construction, say that they lack the money to set things right.

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Although thousands of fossils survived for millions of years deep in the county's soils, questions remain about whether the collection will survive the modern-day guardianship of county officials.

"They either have to bite the bullet and realize they've put themselves into the natural history business, or they have the obligation to find a suitable repository," said David Whistler, a curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

To some, the warehouse is in essence a dump yard, a symbol of how modern-day suburbanites disregard the past.

Others say that a new consciousness is evident in a current warehouse expansion project. County officials say that they are also hoping to acquire larger quarters, hire a professional staff, create an inventory of the holdings, perhaps charge fees to developers--and even place some of these prehistoric riches on public view. A $350,000 federal grant, for instance, is earmarked for improving storage and treatment of archeological items found during road building.

"It's obvious we need to advance this program, and that's what we're going to do," said Tim Miller, manager of Orange County's harbors, beaches and parks.

Whatever the future holds, many scientists in the region view Orange County's problems as a glaring example of how not to treat the past:

* The warehouse, staffed one day a week by one county employee, is crammed with an estimated 15,000 cubic feet of fossils, shells, prehistoric tools, arrowheads and other artifacts. Many are stuffed into cardboard boxes piled four deep on the floor or on towering shelves out of reach. Some boxes are collapsing under the weight of more boxes stacked above them.

* With 5,000 square feet of space, the warehouse is too full to house many of its biggest fossils, which sit outside in plaster jackets. During this winter's storms, winds wreaked havoc with the thin sheets of plastic that county employees draped over the plaster pods.

* Vandals entered the warehouse area a few years ago, apparently cutting through the fence and jumping on some fossil jackets. A few jackets were pushed off outdoor shelving and broke.

* No overall cataloging system exists to keep track of the collection. Some boxes lack clear labels, while rain has erased identification numbers from some plaster jackets.

* Because the warehouse is full, some local consultants have been storing fossils for years at their own expense in their own storage areas or even drive-up self-storage units. One such firm, RMW Paleo Associates of Mission Viejo, estimates it has spent $70,000 to pay for extra warehouse space.

What troubles many scientists is that Orange County is considered a mecca of important fossils. Many are clues to a key period in the evolution of marine mammals, said Tom Demere, curator in the paleontology department of the San Diego Natural History Museum.

"Orange County is among the seven or eight most productive areas for marine fossils in the world," said whale expert Lawrence G. Barnes, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles.

But fossils encased in plaster do not aid scientific research. And some scientists estimate that it could take years and cost millions of dollars to get the current collection treated, identified and organized in a professional fashion.

Over the years, scientists have heard the horror stories.

One paleontologist deposited the fossil remains of an ancient walrus-like creature at the warehouse in 1992 after it was collected during a county road project. The now-extinct creature is probably 14 million years old, said paleontologist Mark Roeder. He later found the fossil outside, its head missing.

In the world of science, he said dryly, "A headless walrus is not as important as one with a head."

Then there is the baleen whale, believed to be 20 million to 22 million years old, dug up at the county's Bowerman landfill by RMW Paleo.

The whale is believed to be the most complete specimen known in the United States of an extinct whale group with unusual swollen bones, said Barnes, the curator. Before its discovery, only a few fragmentary remains had been found in North America.

"It was a particularly important specimen," said J.D. Stewart, assistant curator in vertebrate paleontology at the Los Angeles museum.

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A crew from the museum went to the warehouse this winter to fetch the whale for study. They discovered the plaster cast outside under the edge of a sloping metal roof.

"It appeared the rain water fell directly down on the specimen," said Stewart, who reports plaster was worn away completely in one area and thin and brittle in others. He could not discern if the fossil inside was damaged.

The scientists decided to leave the whale in place until it can be jacketed in fresh plaster. "Better safe than sorry," Stewart said.

The tale of the warehouse is rife with museum dreams that soured. A private, nonprofit group called the Natural History Foundation of Orange County worked for years to establish a natural history museum to house many of the artifacts now in the warehouse.

The county Board of Supervisors in May 1977 passed a resolution calling for the protection of fossils and artifacts. The same year, the county had reached an agreement with the foundation making the county-owned warehouse available for storage. A decade later, the board voted that all specimens found by developers with county permits should remain in Orange County.

The foundation received $250,000 from the Transportation Corridor Agencies to care for artifacts found along a toll road the agencies were building. The Irvine Co., the county's largest developer, estimates it contributed a total of $300,000 to the foundation.

But the foundation went bankrupt in 1992, and the county took on an increasingly large role in warehouse operations. Comprehensive records were missing, and so was the money to care for the specimens.

Today, a county employee is assigned one day a week to the warehouse, and her efforts are praised by some scientists. But dozens more boxes of archeological relics arrived this winter from the toll road agencies, part of the more than 1,000 cubic feet of items unearthed from the San Joaquin Hills tollway. The agency is paying the county $70,000 to store and curate the collection and will use an additional $100,000 to put some specimens on exhibit.

Now a new group called the Orange County Natural History Assn., formed out of the remnants of the old foundation, is talking enthusiastically about starting a museum, aided by a cadre of volunteers. But the earlier failures have left some people skeptical and donors wary.

The current warehouse does not meet federal curatorial standards--a problem the county hopes to begin to solve with the federal grant. It also plans to obtain two warehouses at the Tustin Marine Corps base that together could provide more than 20,000 square feet of storage space.

Another possibility is charging developer fees--which is done by some surrounding counties, where developers are held responsible for storing, curating and cataloging of specimens.

But in Orange County, developers traditionally have not paid for curating or storage. Irvine Co. spokesman Larry Thomas notes that his company did pay $6 million for excavation at Newport Coast and more than $2 million at the prehistoric Newport Bay site now occupied by the Harbor Cove housing community.

"I feel like we've tried to be part of the solution," Thomas said. Regarding the specimens, he said, "If there's a broad public interest in how they're displayed and curated, I think it should fall to a broader base."

Paul Langenwalter, who has performed archeology and paleontology work in the county, said that if Orange County's artifacts are not going to be properly cared for, the material should be sent to institutions--inside or outside the county--that can care for them.

"Provincialism is not warranted if it means the destruction of the collection or continued unavailability," he said. "That's not what science is all about."

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