As the province plans to spend $789 million to rebuild the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, community leaders in Northeast B.C. say hundreds of millions of years of fossil records at B.C.'s largest dinosaur museum are being "nickel and dimed."
The injection of such an extraordinary amount of cash into just one museum has many questioning the equity of the decision, as small museums across B.C. are also in desperate need of funding for programs, business development, and tourism.
Tumbler Ridge Mayor Keith Bertrand says he’d like to see greater provincial involvement with his community's Dinosaur Discovery Gallery.
“There’s endless possibilities there. The gallery is only showcasing, I would say, about a quarter of the artifacts that are actually in the building. It’s just been nickel and dimed for 20 years,” said Bertrand. “We have what we have, which is amazing, but it could be much more.”
The gallery remains the largest dinosaur museum in British Columbia, with more than 3,000 fossils contained in its storage building, an old school gymnasium. Those fossils are the future of the museum, says Bertrand, with pieces ranging from two inches to 10 feet long.
“It’s something to be celebrated; it’s a 450-million-year-old story that we can tell here,” he said.
Bertrand says the province is the true owner of the fossils, pointing out that the Tumbler Ridge Museum has only ever been storing them on its behalf.
“The fossils are the ownership of the province but they’ve always stated that they would like to see the fossils kept in the area they were found, so the local economy can benefit as well,” said Bertrand. “We certainly have a high visitor rate, but my vision in the future is to become a provincial repository, and hopefully get provincial staff at the museum too.”
“At the district, we’re feeling like we should be sending a 20-year storage fee to the province.”
The Tumbler Ridge area was designated as a UNESCO Global Geopark in 2014, protecting 8,500 square kilometres of rock and mountains, with the geological record dating back to the Cretaceous period.
Municipal funds have typically been provided annually to the museum by the District of Tumbler Ridge, and supplemented by the Peace River Regional District. In 2021, $220,000 was provided by the District of Tumbler Ridge to the museum foundation for operations, with an additional $150,000 going to the Tumbler Ridge Global Geopark Society.
Dr. Charles Helm said he’d like to see a more equitable distribution of funding from the province as the fossils contained in Tumbler Ridge, and in the Peace River region at large, are globally unique – rich with trackways, bones, teeth, and skin impressions scarcely found anywhere else in the world.
“They don’t belong to us individually or to the museum, they belong to the province of British Columbia. The province owns them, but that hasn’t translated into funding support,” said Helm. “On the one hand, the fact that the Royal BC Museum is getting this injection of funding shows that this government is willing to recognize the importance of heritage and museums. In that sense, it’s good; I just wish there was a more equitable distribution across the province.”
Helm says B.C. need only look to their neighbours in Alberta and Saskatchewan, which are home to world-class dinosaur and natural science museums.
“Any other province in Canada, any other state in North America, and any other country in the world, if they had that embarrassment of riches, they would support it and they would pay for the research and the museums,” said Helm. “But we, for some reason, are living in the one province where that is not a priority. So, we are absolutely the odd person out, and I don’t fully understand why that is.”
Only 14 Tyrannosaur tracks have been found worldwide - nine of them within the Tumbler Ridge Global Geopark. A sister site exists in Hudson’s Hope, with an estimated 10,000 dinosaur tracks yet to be uncovered.
Ancient crocodile swim traces also were found in the Geopark, while neighbouring communities have discovered creatures like the Pink Mountain Dinosaur and the Hudsonelpedia, rare aquatic reptiles.
Both of those discoveries have been moved out of province to Alberta and Ontario due to a lack of funding , appropriate storage space, and experts to work on them.
“We’ve got a bone bed with at least four, five, dinosaurs just waiting to be uncovered. We’ve got B.C.’s first dinosaur; it’s skull is still in the plaster jacket it was put in 10 years ago, because there’s no funding to work on it,” said Helm.
Helm was there for the beginning of the museum’s 20-year history, when his son Daniel discovered the first dino tracks in Tumbler Ridge in 2000. The museum was formed just two years after that discovery to protect and preserve what had been found.
“He’s been a pioneer here, it goes without saying how much he loves this place,” said Bertrand.
The Ministry of Tourism say it has provided $606,000 to the Tumbler Ridge UNESCO Global Geopark for an interpretive centre and proposed fossil collections repository for the museum. It said the province also provided nearly $1 million in resiliency supplements in 2021 to support community museums through the pandemic.
“Government’s Heritage Branch is working with selected local institutions and the Royal BC Museum on recovering and preserving significant fossil resources ensuring regional fossil resources remain in the region,” said a ministry spokesperson.
Tumbler Ridge Museum curator Zena Conlin said while partnerships are appreciated and staff do their best to work with the province and Royal BC Museum, there’s always more that could be done.
“Anytime I see money being spent, going into museums, arts and culture, heritage, it’s a good thing. I think where our frustration comes in is that most of collection is actually owned by the Province of B.C. and we don’t see any support in funding directly from the province,” she said.
“It’s not just us, there’s museums across B.C. that hold fossils in their collection or have archaeological items that have provincial oversight on them.”
Matt Preprost, Local Journalism Initiative, Alaska Highway News