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Tumbler Ridge pursues Geopark status from UNESCO

Unesco has launched a program to build a global network of Geoparks - places that have special geological features.

Charles Helm

Tumbler Ridge, B.C., was built on coal, springing up in the 1980s to provide homes and services for hundreds of workers drawn to the region by jobs at then-booming Quintette and Bullmoose mines.

The city is also known for resilience, toughing out the closing of those mines – Quintette in 2000 and Bullmoose in 2003 – by pitching itself as a retirement and recreation community, an effort that included auctioning off houses at rock-bottom prices to entice retirees to move there.

Now, Tumbler Ridge has another big idea: using its showy geological assets, which include recently discovered dinosaur tracks and dinosaur bones, to win designation as a UNESCO Geopark.

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If the pitch succeeds, Tumbler Ridge would become only the second such site in North America (the first is Stonehammer in New Brunswick) and join a growing global network of about 100 sites overseen by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Criteria include geological significance as well as conservation, education and sustainable economic development programs.

An evaluation team is scheduled to be in Tumbler Ridge this week and a decision expected some time this year.

For Charles Helm, the Tumbler Ridge physician who has spearheaded the Geopark campaign, the designation would enhance local assets that include a museum with two on-site paleontologists who have made Tumbler Ridge a hub for dinosaur research.

"We have this product that is unique – the waterfalls and the dinosaurs and the trails," Dr. Helm said. "This may be the way to tie all the stuff together we are doing anyway."

The proposed Geopark would take in nearly 8,000 square kilometres and showcase attractions including dinosaur tracks – which two local boys discovered in a creek bed in 2000 – wetlands, cliffs and canyons.

The Geopark would be managed through the museum and run by a non-profit society.

Geoparks don't generate revenue on their own but are supposed to enhance and support local economies.

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"We had to teach people what a Geopark is – because in North America, we often think of a park as a gated area, where you pay your admission and in you go," says Gail Bremner, executive director at Stonehammer.

Stonehammer, by contrast, has 12 publicly accessible sites that have different levels of programming, ranging from free walks to kayak tours for which people pay a fee.

A 2013 study in Britain found that sites linked to UNESCO tend to get more funding and draw more visitors and tallied the economic benefits associated with seven Geoparks at about $34-million a year.

Rich McCrea, curator of paleontology and director of the Tumbler Ridge Museum, was a PhD student at the University of Alberta in 2002 when he came to Tumbler Ridge looking for dinosaur footprints. He and others turned up dinosaur bones – the first time such a discovery had been made in B.C.

At the time, B.C. didn't have an institution with the expertise to excavate and store the bones. The closest option would have been the renowned Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alta. But, pressed by residents who wanted to keep the bones at home, Dr. McCrea agreed to oversee excavation and help the community develop a plan to keep the bones in Tumbler Ridge.

Along the way, he recruited another paleontologist, Lisa Buckley, who had more expertise in excavations. The two scientists wound up getting married and are now key players in the push to win a Geopark designation for Tumbler Ridge.

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A trip by the couple to Turkmenistan – where they were invited to provide advice on a proposed Geopark – provided the seed for the couple to pitch the concept to the museum board, which embraced the idea.

"It would put us on the national stage in advertising this place as a destination," Dr. McCrea said. "Paleontology has opened the door – the Geopark is very strongly paleontology-oriented, but there are all these fabulous attractions that make this a great community."

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More


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