Global Network of National Geoparks

Fossil forest could acquire status

Source : Source: Published :July 23, 2008

NORTON - Fossils are very much on the mind of Norton Mayor Wendy Alcorn and village council these days.

For more than three years, council has worked on making the Norton fossil forest a productive attraction. Alcorn was pleased last week to hear Joggins, across the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, was successful in its bid to make its fossil cliffs a UNESCO world heritage site.

The Norton fossil forest, in a series of highway rock cuts between Norton and Sussex, was among the geological sites Dr. Randy Miller includes in his efforts to have the Greater Saint John area considered for North America's first UNESCO geopark.

Since 2004, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), has overseen a global network of important geological sites imparted with geopark status. A geopark is a geological heritage area with a system of protection, education and sustainable development, incorporating not only the site's geological attractions but ecological, cultural and historical features as well. There are about five-dozen geoparks world-wide, mostly in Europe, China and Australia.

The Village of Norton submitted a funding request last month for $25,000 to the Regional Development Corporation to conduct a feasibility study. The study would examine post-opening operating expenses and projected income to determine whether a proposed fossil interpretive centre in the village could have long-term sustainability.

"It's been four years. We thought at first it would be a lot quicker," Alcorn said of the village's plan to build on the fossils' potential. Alcorn had just begun her first term as Norton mayor when the fossil story broke in 2004.

Three years ago, she visited Joggins with a Norton fossil committee to learn how that community made its fossil cliffs a significant attraction. Not long afterward, the Joggins Fossil Institute began its UNESCO application process.

The Norton committee is exploring options for promoting a 350 million-year-old fossil forest, possibly the world's oldest forest. The fossil remains are 45 million years older than the fossil cliffs of Joggins, where the world's oldest reptile fossil was found.

If the proposed feasibility study gets a government thumbs up, Joggins institute director Jenna Boon may be on board as an advisor for the Norton project. In his proposal, Saint John consultant George Quigley named Boone as a potential resource team member. As senior project manager of the Joggins fossil cliffs project, she was involved in bringing both the new interpretive centre and the UNESCO designation to fruition.

Other resource team members named were Tom Sharpe, a National Museum of Wales curator studying a fossil forest unearthed in that country, and Randy Miller, curator of geology and paleontology at the New Brunswick Museum.

Last month, Miller gave a presentation in Germany on the first proposed UNESCO Geopark in North America. The proposed Greater Saint John geopark would extend from Lepreau Falls to Norton, including the Kingston Peninsula and the Fundy Trail. The region's rock formations have been the source of important geological discoveries since the 1830s and record up to a billion years of earth history, according to Miller.

"There are some really interesting fossil sites in Norton, Saint John and Lepreau," he said.

While waiting for the wheels of government project funding to slowly turn, the village developed walking trails and purchased land adjacent to Route 1 with plans to build a new municipal building, which could include a fossil interpretive centre.

"We're in a good area for bringing tourists through," Alcorn said.

"There could be cruise ship tours, school tours it's amazing how many avenues you can go."

The Village has also been working with Enterprise Fundy to investigate funding options and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency to examine the site's tourism potential.

Meanwhile, Miller has brought the tourism sector into his efforts to make the Saint John geopark a reality. In February a community group led by Gail Bremner, vice-president of Aquila Tours in Saint John, announced its intent to work with Miller and the museum toward the UNESCO geopark designation.