The Tragedy of the Quarry
A sandstone quarry in New Jersey, long abandoned, has been the scene of a desperate and unsung fight for quite a while. It’s a low grade, apparently low stakes kind of battle, the kind that happens all the time. Developers (Boo! Hiss!) for a condominium community have bought the land surrounding the quarry are pushing ahead to do what they do, i.e, develop it. The residents of nearby communities are fighting the project tooth and nail, and as usual, they are losing.
What makes this important (or at least swings it withing the purview of this column) is one simple detail. Enshrined within the sandstone walls of the pit lie the preserved footprints of dinosaurs, tracks from the ancient and mysterious Triassic/Jurassic boundary. Should the development project go forward, these fossils and any others that lie as yet undiscovered will be lost.
The resistance to this, as the AP reports, is fairly widespread. There have been petitions to the county for the area to be folded into the adjacent state park, and the idea is currently winding its tortuous way through the state bureaucracy. But it’s taking too long; the bulldozers have started to move, and already a shroud of dirt covers the wall and its long preserved tracks. It’s gotten to the point that the scientists in the area, resigned to the wall’s destruction, have decided to simply salvage as much as they can, as quickly as they can, before it’s all gone.
All of this raises a question; who owns these fossils?
The quick, obvious answer is that the developer does, and in a legal sense this is true. Whatever is on the land is theirs to do with as they please, to preserve or destroy. If they want to cut down the trees, they can. If they want to keep them there and make it into a park, they could. Why does it matter what they chose to do with their land? They have the legal right.
But here’s the thing; once a fossil is gone, it is gone. All that we could have learned, all that we could have seen, that tiniest connection we can glean from a touch, the connection that brings us back to a time when life on earth was wondrous and strange–all of that will vanish. And we can never get it back.
Destroying fossils, whether through poaching or development or neglect, is destroying our chance to understand out history, the history of life on earth. It is a crime against knowledge, and a crime against all of us. These fossils are part of our shared heritage, not as humans but as living things. And when we lose a piece of that heritage, we lose a chance at understanding who we are and where we came from.
I should point out here that I don’t believe the developers are evil. They are simply doing what they have to do, like all of us. Why should they care about fossils in the rock? It’s not their business. It doesn’t affect them.
But the fossils don’t belong to them. Legally, yes, but not morally. They belong to Humanity as a whole, and Humanity as a whole will be much the poorer for their loss, whether that loss is in New Jersey or China or Sudan. Let the Developers develop, but let it be somewhere else.
Here’s a petition to save the quarry. I urge you to sign it. The records of our natural history cannot be given a price, for they belong to all of us.
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