Josh Smith, Bryan Small, Becky Benzie, Joe Sertich and Steve Mohr work to move a mastodon pelvis in its jacket.
Josh Smith, Bryan Small, Becky Benzie, Joe Sertich and Steve Mohr work to move a mastodon pelvis in its jacket. Credit: Courtesy photo / Demver Museum of Nature and Science

When scientists and volunteer assistants wrapped up their excavation of the Ziegler Reservoir in 2011 to ride triumphantly in Aspen’s Fourth of July parade, they left untouched 90 percent of the deposits congealed in peat and clay.

Scientists, however, haven’t ruled out returning to the site dubbed “Snowmastodon,” because of the trove of mastodon bones discovered. And a conceptual plan prepared for Snowmass Discovery, a not-for-profit group, also targets renewed excavations, perhaps by 2018.

Ian Miller, curator of paleontology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, said scientists have “no immediate plans to return to the site to excavate” but hope to eventually.

Miller, a paleobotanist, and several dozens scientists are currently assessing the significance of what they found in a spirited and frenzied two-month spate of digging during 2010 and 2011. They left the site to allow bulldozers free reign once again to carve out the reservoir from the ancient lake bed.

“That doesn’t mean that we aren’t very interested in going back some day,” said Miller. “I just don’t know when that would be right now. There is no doubt that the site is a world-class paleontological archive and that there will be many scientists very interested in returning to collect more information in the not-so-distant future.”

Acrylic painting of Ziegler Reservoir landscape by Jan Vriesen, depicts Summer 2012 after the dam was completed and the reservoir was filled. Credit: Courtesy photo / Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Dig again in 2018?

A report commissioned by Snowmass Discovery also identifies reopening the reservoir to excavation in 2018 as a possible strategy in creating an “appropriate and inspired response” to the major paleontology discovery.

John Rigney, a board member of Snowmass Discovery, laid out elements of the report on Tuesday to the Snowmass Village Part Time Residents Advisory Board and also introduced Tom Cardamone, chief ecologist of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES).

In his new but part-time position, Cardamone will be responsible for overseeing the local response to the discovery. His most immediate task is to ramp up programming associated with the discovery this year. Included are a lecture series, and a “dig pit,” full of reproduction Ice Age fossils for kids to find and piece together. Discussions are underway about use of U.S. Forest Service property on Snowmass ski area.

In addition, a fossil expert from the museum, Gussie MacCracken, will be opening and preparing “jacketed” fossils until October at the Snowmass Ice Age Discovery Center. Space in the Snowmass Mall for the Discovery Center was made available by Colorado WestPac at a deeply discounted rate. Sue Whittingham, guest services supervisor, reported that 68,673 people had been into the center since it opened in March 2011.

The larger work of Cardamone will be to review the longer range ideas submitted by the original “tusk” force created in Snowmass, as well as what’s in a report released in January by John McCarter, who had retired in October after being chief executive officer of Chicago’s Field of Museum of Natural History for 15 years.

A mastodon vertebra from the Ice Age site. Credit: Courtesy photo / Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Record of climate change

Fundamentally at issue is how Snowmass and Aspen will leverage the local response in a way to match the magnitude of the find. Scientists says that while the bones of mastodon are the most visual component of the discovery, the window into the climate as it changed between 50,000 and 130,000 years ago will likely be of the greatest long-term value of the discovery.

Exactly what approaches Snowmass takes remains to be decided, and Rigney said it will be Cardamone’s job during the next three to four months to evaluate the practicality and economic feasibility of the ideas and prioritize them.

Two perhaps overlapping visions have been suggested. One calls for a “grand reinvention” of Snowmass as a center for understanding the environment. The other emphasizes commerce, using the Snowmastodon project to help build summer business.

The McCarter report also lays out a six-year agenda, beginning this year by “reestablishing the excitement of the discovery.”

Next year, according to this draft plan, would come public outdoor and indoor art for installation, such as a life-sized mastodon cast in bronze or made of fiberglass at the intersection of Highway 82 and Brush Creek Road. Average mastodons grew to 7 to 8 feet tall at the shoulder, although some males surpassed 9 feet. Another idea is to create mastodon footprints in Snowmass, perhaps along hiking trails.

Acrylic painting of Ziegler Reservoir landscape by Jan Vriesen, depicts about 130,000 years ago, after the formation of the lake basin by a glacier that spilled out of Snowmass Creek Valley. Credit: Courtesy photo / Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Davos of climate change?

The report then recommends building scientific educational programs for international and regional participants by 2015. The intent would be to draw scientists to conferences from May through October.

By 2016, Snowmass would stretch even more, “becoming the intellectual center on climate change issues.” Rigney, in his presentation to the Snowmass group on Tuesday, said the goal would be to become “the Davos of climate.”

“There are hundreds of ideas floating out there, and this is just one,” Rigney said. “But maybe, due to the magnitude of the find, especially as it relates to its climate history and ultimately the disclosure of the findings, it’s something to explore … And the Aspen-Snowmass area is no stranger to bringing thought leaders and influencers to the resort to discuss globally relevant topics, especially one so critically important as climate.”

The plan calls for theater and exhibition space by 2019.

Rigney said Cardamone’s work will likely “require consultation with more experts and then the Snowmass Discovery board to clarify the vision and objectives for the group; start thinking about critical partners, funding sources and building consensus.”

As for getting back to Ziegler Reservoir for more excavation, that is identified in the plan for 2018. But it’s not a given.

“We all know that there are many hurdles to ever doing something like that,” said Rigney, a vice president of the Aspen Skiing Co. “At some point we would love to figure out how to get guided tours up there, but again, it will require a lot of collaboration to make this a possibility. Regardless, both are worth pursuing when the time is right.”

Like so many things, excavation would depend upon the current weather. The reservoir is owned by the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District, but the land itself continues to be owned by the Ziegler family. The SkiCo now owns water stored in the reservoir.

“We would have to determine what type of rainfall and snowfall year we’re in and do a risk assessment to make sure we can refill the reservoir,” said Kit Hamby, manager of the water district.

But Rigney and other Snowmass Discovery board members do feel a weight of responsibility, given the task that the group’s press release describes as “creating an appropriate and inspired response equal to Colorado’s largest fossil discovery and the world’s best high-elevation ice age site.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborated with Mountain Town News and the Aspen Daily News on this story. The Daily News published a version on July 4, 2012.

Allen Best

Allen Best wrote his first story about water in Colorado in 1977 when living in Kremmling. After that, he edited newspapers in Winter Park and in the Vail/Eagle Valley before relocating to metropolitan...