Today, we are caught in friendly fire. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Environmentalists are usually
allies of paleontologists and archaeologists. We
often find them joining forces to oppose
encroachments on the land, so as to preserve the
historical record. But now a strange event has them
This story begins with strip mining for coal. Years
ago, strip mining created appalling damage in much
of Appalachia. Vast parts of Pennsylvania, West
Virginia, and Kentucky were laid waste by rapacious
mining — left looking like WW-I no-man's-land.
Now strip mining in Alabama has exposed a
large amount of rock that hasn't seen the light of
day for 310 million years. Embedded in it are
tracks left by creatures from the carboniferous
era. Science magazine tells how members of
the Alabama Paleontology Society have been
converging on an area around Jasper, Alabama. They
call their gatherings track meets.
These amateur paleontologists are creating a huge
inventory of the tracks left by amphibians,
millipedes, horseshoe crabs, and fish. Whether some
of these are reptile tracks is a question
that this site might help resolve, since reptiles were
Experts are calling this the richest site of
ancient tracks ever discovered. Some leading
paleontologists call it a biological Rosetta
Stone. But, there's a catch. By 1977, it'd
became clear how much terrible and irreversible
damage strip mining had done to the American
landscape. The government began requiring companies
to restore land before erosion could complete the
destruction. As a result strip mining now leaves
very little devastation.
Alabama's New Acton Coal Company has
therefore been ordered to begin filling in this
site by September 2003. They must bulldoze it and
cover it with a thirty-foot layer of fill.
In June, an Alabama legislator introduced a bill
that would allow the company to give the land to
the Department of the Interior. That way Interior
could make it exempt from reclamation. The company
was willing; but then someone complained that a
cliff face on the site was a hazard. At that point
the Alabama Surface Mining Commission
ordered reclamation to continue. Now the
paleontologists are seeking an eleventh-hour stay.
All this should be resolved by the time many of you
hear this. Meantime, there is no battle of good
versus evil here. Once we grow casual about setting
aside environmental regulations, we might as well
not have them in the first place. Yet rules without
exceptions always court trouble.
So, all this maneuvering is probably in our
long-term best interest. Yet, I think about that third of a billion year-old rain forest — once
green and wet, now imprinted upon stone, a story
waiting to be read. And I surely hope this
marvelous site does not get buried before it yields
its full trove of information.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
E. Stokstad, Ancient Trackways in Strip Mine
Threatened by Reburial. Science, Vol. 301. 8
August 2003, pg. 746.
For more on this situation, and about the
carboniferous era, see: http://bama.ua.edu/~rbuta/monograph/index.html
Bureau of Land Management image
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.