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The future of fossilized dinosaur footprints on the Navajo Nation is uncertain

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

Dinosaur tracks scattered along U.S. Highway 160 near Tuba City have attracted travelers on road trips through the Navajo Nation for decades. But the future of these fossilized footprints remains uncertain.

The Moenkopi Wash is home to dozens of tracks, from the Dilophosaurus to the Tyrannosaurus rex. And a ragtag group of about 15 Navajo guides greet tourists right off the roadside, directly across from a green-painted “turn here” sign.

Among them is Andrew Morales, who’s been guiding visitors around these ancient grounds for 14 years now. 

He and his peers estimate giving up to 60 tours “on a good day,” during peak popularity in the spring and summer. But Morales admitted he may be lucky to get between five and 10 tours daily amid the colder winter weather in the offseason. It causes them to see a decline in vacationers at this Navajo tourism destination.

“About 300 million years ago, this was a great riverbed at one time,” said Morales. “We’ll go and head on down this way here.”

It’s pretty easy to lose track of the dino tracks. There aren’t any displays, markers, or plachards, only piles of rocks surround the sediment impressions. 

“We circle them out, you know, preserve them as much as we can,” added Morales. “They go on for miles and miles. We’re stuck out here, we take care of the land.”

Last May, Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren announced funding from the American Rescue Plan to help protect this special attraction, spanning 8 acres, but those federal dollars fell through.

Navajo Nation tourism department manager Bobby Martin calls it a setback. He grew up in Tuba City, and has a deep appreciation for this prehistoric spot.

“That’s actually my backyard, been there since I was a kid. It would be a great improvement to see some kind of development in that area,” said Martin. “There is no funding right now, but that doesn’t mean that’s going to stop us from from looking for outsource funding, if we can get the community to all get behind it.”

Several Navajos from the local Coalmine Canyon Chapter opposed any sort of development. 

At the same time, “everything that we do is all on our own, so we gotta do what we can,” said Morales, like branding and self-promotion, including a hope to “get bigger signs that go high up in the sky.” 

“We are looking for some kind of funding to help at least improve signage to that area,” said Martin. 

There aren't any parking or entrance fees, but their bootstrap business is driven by tips. Yet tipping guides is entirely optional. Even taking a tour is voluntary.

Martin is still trying to find ways to improve this important site, possibly in collaboration with the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation department, to help ensure that these fossils and dinosaur tracks are still around for generations to come.

“They’re just as important as our Anasazi sites and our other areas that we deem sacred on the Navajo Nation,” said Martin. “Obviously, the little rock circles around, they're not going to protect it but, I believe that this should also be protected.” 

Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.