Dinosaur Footprints at Risk of Demolition

Along the coast of western Australia, a region called the Kimberley is home to 50 continuous miles of fossilized dinosaur tracks made 130 million years ago. Some prints are a colossal 5 feet long, created by the great Sauropods, huge quadrupedal plant-eaters to which Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus belong, and the largest land animals to have ever walked the Earth.

In 1994 reports of the tracks were so spectacular that accounts of them were thought to be embellished and were left unstudied for some time. Once examined, the “Broome Dinosaur Highway” was found to have representatives from at least 15 different species including carnivorous, herbivorous, and possibly armored dinosaurs like Stegosaurus. Aside from a few bone fragments, this is the only indication of dinosaurs found in western Australia, and some species are unprecedented in the entire country. But the fate of this so far unbroken stretch of irreplaceable historic evidence is in jeopardy.

The Kimberley is a remote and sparsely populated region and has only recently been recognized for its scientific and economic possibilities. Gas giants Shell, BP, and Woodside Energy of Perth hope to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) processing plant in the Browse Basin at James Price Point, a coastal zone at the northern end of the dinosaur track line. The commercialization of these offshore natural gas sources would feed a multi-billion dollar export deal made with China.

Construction of this plant would mean certain destruction for some of the prints, but scientists are further concerned that indirect consequences could endanger a much larger section of coastline. The proposed jetties and sand dredging involved in building the gas hub is likely to cause shifting sands along the coast and could obscure several more miles of the dinosaur prints, many of which are already only accessible at low tide. The research value of the tracks doesn’t come from just independent impressions, but from the study of the collection as a whole, possibly providing answers to long time questions regarding dinosaur social behavior and travel.

Prominent paleontologists have been pleading for the preservation of the area due to its unmatched scientific significance. Dr. Tony Thulborn of the University of Queensland sent a petition with the names of over 80 scientists from 16 countries protesting the project to the state government. Dr. Steve Salisbury, also of the University of Queensland, has expressed his apprehension through various media outlets. On the Public Radio International show The World, he described the site as “phenomenal in terms of the sort of information we get out of it for understanding dinosaur movements.”

The fossilized footprints have been getting a lot of press, and because of their fame the Browse Basin plant has become the poster child of industrialization that covets the entire Kimberley region. So while evidence of extinct animals are under some threat, what of the living ones of this millennium?

Conservationists from multiple organizations are concerned with the processing plant’s effects on both the terrestrial and marine environments. According to Environs Kimberley, construction would destroy over 5500 acres of land, likely including several hundred acres of rare rainforest-like habitat called Monsoon Vine Thickets.

Also at critical risk is the endemic Flatback turtle along with 5 other endangered turtle species found in the vicinity. Fear for the disturbance of manatee, Humpback whale, and Snubfin dolphin (only just recognized as unique to Australia) whose migratory patterns are not well known have organizations demanding caution and further study.

Without an established knowledge base like those on the eastern side of the continent (now containing protected areas like the Great Barrier Reef), environmentalists claim there isn’t enough groundwork yet to make educated decisions about industrial opportunities.

As for the people who make the Kimberly their home, opinions have been divided. On May 6th, after much deliberation and negotiation, Aborigine landowners voted in favor of a deal with the state government allowing the project to go through. The government had already begun obtaining the rights by compulsory acquisition, creating some bitterness with much of the population, and splinter groups are still determined to continue the fight against development.

The final jurisdiction lies with Australian Environmental Minister Tony Burke. At his authority, several large sections of the Kimberley region including James Price Point are being considered for classification as a National Heritage Site. This may not be enough to prevent the LNG plant however. Heritage listing only requires that potentially irreparable damage to heritage value be taken into account before industry approval. Burke may deem the plant’s high economic value to outweigh negligible disturbance to the environment.

A decision was originally expected late last year, but Burke postponed it in order to further assess the situation and consider public feedback. By June 30th the world will see what is to become of western Australia’s scientific relics and pristine ecosystems.

Photo Credit: flickr.com/photos/gregw66/4056320716/

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