Fight over dinosaur fossils comes down to what's a mineral
HELENA, Montana — About 66 million years after two dinosaurs died apparently locked in battle on the plains of modern-day Montana, an unusual fight over who owns the entangled fossils has become a multimillion-dollar issue that hinges on the legal definition of "mineral."
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month that the "Dueling Dinosaurs" located on private land are minerals both scientifically and under mineral rights laws. The fossils belong both to the owners of the property where they were found and two brothers who kept two-thirds of the mineral rights to the land once owned by their father, a three-judge panel said in a split decision.
An attorney for the property owners said the case is complex in dealing with who owns what's on top of land vs. the minerals that make it up and addresses a unique question of mineral rights law related to dinosaur fossils that no court in the country has taken up before.
His clients own part of a ranch in the Hell Creek Formation of eastern Montana that's rich with prehistoric fossils, including the Dueling Dinosaurs whose value had been appraised at $7 million to $9 million.
A few months after the ranch’s owners sold the surface rights — while retaining a share of the mineral rights — amateur paleontologist Clayton Phipps discovered fossils of a 22-foot-long theropod and a 28-foot-long ceratopsian apparently locked in battle.
The dispute has wider implications because the ranch is in an area that has numerous prehistoric creatures preserved in layers of clay and sandstone. Paleontologists have unearthed thousands of specimens now housed in museums and used for research.
But fossils discovered on private land can be privately owned, frustrating paleontologists who say valuable scientific information is being lost.
During the court case, the Dueling Dinosaurs were put up for auction in New York in November 2013. Bidding topped out at $5.5 million, less than the reserve price of $6 million.
New Mexico lawmakers seek to rename Columbus Day
SANTA FE — The state of New Mexico may have celebrated its last Columbus Day.
A legislative proposal to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples' Day has cleared its first hurdle in the New Mexico Legislature with a unanimous committee endorsement.
Sandia Pueblo tribal member and Democratic state Rep. Derrick Lente is preparing a bill for the coming legislative session that renames the state holiday celebrated on the second Monday in October.
He told fellow lawmakers that it is fitting that the tribute to Christopher Columbus be dropped in a state with 23 designated Native American communities.
Tributes to European conquerors are fading or being rewritten out of consideration for Native Americans in many New Mexico communities amid enduring expressions of pride in the state's Spanish colonial heritage.
New Mexico lawmakers endorse pension, health-benefit reforms
SANTA FE — A panel of New Mexico state lawmakers endorsed proposals last week to shore up a pension fund for educators and a retirement health insurance program for public employees, as unfunded retirement obligations rise.
The state's unfunded pension liabilities are threatening to drive up borrowing costs for the state and local governments. A major credit ratings agency has cited pension obligations in recent decisions to downgraded bond ratings for the state and Albuquerque, the state's largest city.
Jan Goodwin, executive director of the Educational Retirement Board that oversees a $13 billion education pension fund for public school districts and state colleges, warned lawmakers that the state may end up sacrificing billions of dollars unnecessarily in coming decades by putting too little money aside for pensions and missing out on investment opportunities.
She said unfunded pension obligations reached $7.5 billion in July.
Employers such as school districts would increase contributions to the fund by 3 percent of pay over a three year period — while avoiding any increase in contributions by employees, under proposed legislation from the Educational Retirement Board.
It also would raise the minimum retirement age from 55 to 58 for new employees, and includes a one-time $248 million appropriation from the state general fund.
The committee also endorsed a plan to bolster finances at the New Mexico Retiree Health Care Authority that provides low-cost insurance plans to employees in public education and state and local government.
That proposed bill would raise both employee and employer contributions to help keep pace with increases in the health care costs. An employee earning $40,000 who currently pays about $400 annually would pay roughly $600 by 2023, according to authority Executive Director David Archuleta.
The Public Employees Retirement Authority also is weighing how to respond to mounting unfunded pension obligations to current and former state, county and municipal workers along with judges and volunteer firefighters.
Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, is preparing a bill that gives greater autonomy to the Public Employees Retirement Authority to suspend cost of living increases to retirees and to increase state government contributions to the pension fund. Those kinds of decisions currently require statutory changes by lawmakers.
Utah, US to launch study on mining pollution in Lake Powell
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah and U.S. government officials will launch a study this month to determine the extent of mining pollution in Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border.
Heavy metals washed into Lake Powell over the decades by flash flooding will be dug up from the river deltas to assess metal concentrations, The Deseret News reported.
The study will provide information about how mining affects the lake and the fish that live in it. Researchers will test for levels of arsenic, cadmium, copper, mercury and lead.
The lake is a key part of a water system that provides drinking water to 40 million people in the Southwest.
The Utah Division of Water Quality will join the U.S. Geological Society, the National Park Service and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on the project.
"This is the first study to collect and characterize sediment through the full thickness of the San Juan and Colorado river deltas," said Scott Hynek, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Preliminary findings of the study are expected in 2020.
It comes after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accidentally triggered a massive release of wastewater laden with toxic metals at the Gold King Mine in Colorado three years ago. The estimated 3 million gallons of wastewater carrying 540 tons of metals washed into rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
A metal eagle with a 48-foot wingspan now soars over the town of Mills
Casper, Wyoming — A metal eagle with a 48-foot wingspan now keeps watch over cars as they pass along Wyoming Boulevard in Mills. The stainless steel head and tail gleam in the sunlight and set off the rust patina of steel feathers along the bird’s body and wings.
The sculpture was installed last month in the small town near Casper as part of planned improvements and beautification to the riverfront area, Mills Mayor Seth Coleman said.
Representing courage and growth, an eagle suits Mills as the town anticipates officially becoming a first-class city after the next census, he said.
The Mills Town Council approved the $75,000 purchase after a local business owner saw it on display in Montana, and townspeople began fundraising efforts, which are ongoing to cover the sculpture and planned landscaping around it.
The 8,100-pound eagle is the first monument sculpture installed in Mills, according to the town.
Sculptor Todd Berget, a retired teacher and owner of Custom Iron Eagles in Libby, Montana, has so far created 95 eagles since he started in 1997. He believes the Mills eagle is the largest metal eagle in North America and perhaps South and Central America.
Berget uses scrap metal whenever he can in his sculptures. The Mills eagle’s talons are made from exhaust pipes that an auto body shop couldn’t use, for instance. He created the inner structure out of sprinkler system pipes from a wood mill that was damaged by heavy snow.
“Mills has always been an industrial area; it was originally founded to serve the refinery,” Coleman said. “And so having a sculpture that is very industrial type sculpture seems to fit our community well.”