Playing with dinosaurs

With a lot of heart and fund-raising savvy, volunteers generate millions for future natural-history museum

DINO-MIGHT Richard Hilton, author of Dinosaurs and Other Mesozoic Reptiles of California, says that 70 million years ago, while plenty of dinosaurs roamed the area that is now Chico, they didn’t include T-Rexes or triceratopses. “Maybe if you look hard, you will find a triceratops bone in California and prove us wrong,” he told about 24 children gathered for a Nov. 22 talk at Barnes & Noble. “You’ll be famous.”

DINO-MIGHT Richard Hilton, author of Dinosaurs and Other Mesozoic Reptiles of California, says that 70 million years ago, while plenty of dinosaurs roamed the area that is now Chico, they didn’t include T-Rexes or triceratopses. “Maybe if you look hard, you will find a triceratops bone in California and prove us wrong,” he told about 24 children gathered for a Nov. 22 talk at Barnes & Noble. “You’ll be famous.”

Photo By Tom Angel

Scene: the valleys of Northern California. Time: 150 million years ago.

As huge, flying reptiles circled overhead, sea-going lizards, duck-billed reptiles and prehistoric sharks glided through the waters that covered the land now known as Butte County and what in paleontology circles is called the Chico Formation.

“All these reptiles were swimming right over Chico for millions and millions of years,” said paleontologist Richard Hilton. It wasn’t until fairly recently—which in geological terms means 70 million years ago—that the waters receded and the dinosaurs schoolchildren know and love ruled the day.

It’s quite possible, Hilton added with excitement in his voice, that a dinosaur the size of a Tyrannosaurus Rex once stomped through Mesozoic downtown Chico. The meat-eating Albertosaurus may have chomped on too-slow dino-snacks not far from where Chico students now enjoy a leisurely burger or pizza.

Much later came woolly mammoths, bird-like pterosaurs and what Hilton called “the frosting on the cake": saber-toothed tigers.

Hilton, a professor at Sierra College in Rocklin, is among a group of volunteers who wants to recreate these creatures’ world within the walls of a state-of-the-art, $9 million museum. If momentum holds, that means that as soon as spring 2006, a 14,000-square-foot Northern California Natural History Museum will be constructed on university land adjacent to The Esplanade.

Supporters conservatively estimate the museum would draw 40,000 visitors a year, solidifying Chico’s status as a cultural and learning center for the Northstate. Owned by Chico State University, the museum could boost the economy, serve as a learning center for college students and faculty members and interest schoolchildren in science.

Hilton, who earned bachelor’s degrees in geology and earth science at Chico State and this year published the first book dedicated to California Mesozoic reptiles, said Chico is ripe for this. “It’s the cultural center of the North Valley,” he explained. “It really needs to have a natural-history museum. And next to Bidwell Mansion and the college is the natural place to have one. If we can do it right, it will be like the Monterey Bay Aquarium of Chico.”

With an ever-worsening state budget, skeptics may wonder if the Chico community is going to dig $9 million out of the lint in its collective pockets.

The people behind the Northern California Natural History Museum think so.

They’re already two-thirds of the way there, and supporters no longer talk in terms of “if,” but rather “when.”

“It’s a major, modern museum,” said its director, Ray Barnett, his eyes lighting up and his soft voice quickening. “Busloads of kids will drive up to that wonderful site on The Esplanade. They will see dinosaurs that were in Northern California right in front of them. They’ll be visually employed for the next hour or two, and they’ll be learning in spite of themselves. It’s going to be a serious amount of fun.”

WHERE IT’S AT Chico State University has donated nearly two acres of land for the Northern California Natural History Museum. A row of trees would be removed to expose the structure to The Esplanade. With 30,000 people a year visiting adjacent Bidwell Mansion, supporters expect the museum to draw plenty of the nearly 700,000 schoolchildren who live within a three-hour bus ride of Chico.

Barnett excitedly reels off his wish list of interactive exhibits, including a robotic mammoth and water-going reptiles circling the ceiling. One promise: “We’ll have a very impressive, large carnivorous dinosaur.”

For Barnett, a professor in the College of Natural Sciences to whom the university has granted release time for the project, it’s a dream that has already been seven years in the making.

The university’s collection of fossils, skulls and stuffed animals sit in an old lab room in Chico State’s Holt Hall. “We have such limited room we cram them all together,” Barnett lamented. A polar bear shares space with a skunk, the ground squirrels are a foot from the saber-toothed tiger skull, and so on.

In 1996, a group of nature- and history-lovers gathered in Ken and Sheryl Lange’s home to brainstorm.

“When we first got together, it was just to discuss what might be a better way to display some of these wonderful things that we have,” remembered Sheryl Lange, a former Chico City Council member and current secretary for the museum board. “A lot of people didn’t even know it was there.”

“At one point, Sheryl or someone sitting around the table leaned over and said, ‘Why can’t we build a real museum?'” Barnett said.

Calling themselves the Community Advisory Board, the volunteers decided to go for what they really wanted. “We went on this whole different tangent. We thought, ‘We can do this,'” Lange said. “None of us really knew what it would entail. It just grew from our original concept, and with each step people have new enthusiasm.”

Seven years of focus groups, service club meetings and design consultations later, the group has raised $6.3 million, counting the $2 million value of the land donated by Chico State University, $75,000 from the city of Chico to cover fees and infrastructure improvements and—the biggest coup—$3 million from Proposition 40, the Clean Water, Clean Air, Safe Neighborhood Parks and Coastal Protection Act.

Northern California—defined in this instance by an imaginary line drawn through Sacramento and Santa Rosa—is the only region in the state without a natural-history museum focusing on its biology and natural resources.

In a six-county region of Northern California, students go on to college at a rate of 8 percent, compared to 18 percent statewide, according to a 2001 McConnell Foundation study.

When museum board member Glen Toney heard this, he knew he and his wife, Virginia, would soon be discussing not whether to give, but how much. “Many of these students were qualified to go to the UC or state system,” he said. That they weren’t choosing college “really struck me as a potential loss of resources and skills.” The Toneys recently retired to Chico from the Silicon Valley. Toney, an Oroville native, graduated from Chico State in 1966 and went on to get a Ph.D. and excel in the semiconductor industry and volunteer for educational causes.

“I grew up in Northern California and had the opportunity as a young person to explore a lot of California. I was a Boy Scout, and we’d camp for two or three days, exploring the configuration of the landscape and looking for arrowheads and bones,” he explained.

The Toneys decided to sponsor the Mesozoic Age of Dinosaurs to the tune of $100,000. Why Mesozoic? “All of those reptiles,” Toney grinned. “There’s still a lot of kid in me.”

Coming Soon Pictured at the future site of the Northern California Natural History Museum are board members Jessee Allread, Judy Sitton and Ray Barnett.

Photo By Tom Angel

Chico State draws more than 25,000 grade-school students each year, said Scott McNall, its provost and interim president. “We want to provide students who visit the campus with a full day of activities, and the [museum] will allow us to do that. … This is a wonderful opportunity to serve the local community and do so in a way that benefits the schools.”

Besides highlighting Native American cultures and the natural history of the region, the museum will promote study of the sciences. “Science education is absolutely critical, and we must do a better job of stimulating students to think about future careers as biologists, chemists, agronomists and anthropologists,” McNall insisted.

What museum board members, who have toured several other museums and attended curators’ conferences, don’t want is the sterile, fogged-glass experience provided by facilities that are not up-to-date. They want what’s referred to in museum parlance as “the wow factor.” That could include touch-screen monitors, virtual-reality computer games, touchable models and hands-on science projects—all developed to coordinate with K-12 science requirements.

“It’s important [to make exhibits interactive] because we can do it,” Hilton explained. “Now we have the technology. [Kids] want to do something and have something come back at them.”

The museum would have what’s called “immersion dioramas,” where visitors can walk though recreated habitats and even touch some of the exhibits. “It’s not a box with a bunch of dead animals behind glass,” Barnett said. “We just learned early on that [hands-on] are the sort of museums that work. We want this to be an exciting museum that kids and adults love. Here, you’re not just looking at a habitat; you’re actually in the habitat.”

The museum would be divided into “Ages” and “Worlds,” with the ages focusing on the Mesozoic Age, Ice Age and present times, while the worlds would lead visitors through the four habitats of Northern California: the coast, the valley, the foothills and the high mountains.

The organizers have spoken with area Native Americans about doing crafts and cultural demonstrations there. Another huge hall would be reserved for traveling exhibits, which would not be limited to Northern California themes. (Think mummies.)

Illustrating more modern times would be representations of the Sutter Buttes, waterfowl species—even Ishi’s foothill camp.

Lange said, “So many children in our part of the state have never even been to the coast, and they don’t realize what our part of the state is all about. We can go from the ocean to the mountains all in one day.”

Within 45 minutes to an hour, for an admission price of about $5 for adults, visitors would take that “journey” from the coast to the mountains.

It’s something Chico children are hungry for, said Jessee Allread, the museum’s director of major gifts. “I’ve collected fossils and taxidermied animals for some time,” he said, and he sometimes lends them to his neighborhood elementary school. “We’d wheel a California brown bear over from our house to the school, and it would stand there and stay there.

“Field trips are a big deal for kids,” he continued. “We’re going to be a hot destination. Maybe not the fire department, but pretty close.”

Northern California is not known for its dinosaurs.

CLOSE QUARTERS Currently, Chico State’s prehistoric creatures and exhibits, such as a mountain lion and gray whale skull, are crammed into the hallways and a room in Holt Hall. A polar bear towers over native species in a corner of a lab room. “We bring thousands of schoolchildren up here every year, but we realized early on that we can do better than this and we should do better than this,” said Professor Ray Barnett, director of the Northern California Natural History Museum. “We think this region deserves a natural-history museum focusing on its wonders.”

Photo By Tom Angel

When Toney heard the creatures had strolled the Northstate, “I thought, ‘You’re kidding me.’ I wanted to go on a dig. You read all the time about the places in Utah and Wyoming and the Dakotas.”

While dinosaurs were roaming the Sierra Nevada, during the Jurassic and late Cretaceous periods, Chico was still underwater and awash with at least 12 species of sharks, sea lilies, rays and a Jurassic Park’s worth of prehistoric fish. Mosasaurs at least 20 feet long, tortoises as large as those from the Galapagos Islands, ichthyosaurs and huge, swimming plesiosaurs cruised among tropical islands and coral reefs.

Near Redding, while fossil-hunting with his son Jakob and a geologist friend, Hilton found remains of a 110-million-year-old hypsilophodontid, which hails as the oldest discovery of a Cretaceous dinosaur in the state. He’ll eventually add it to the natural-history museum’s collection.

In Pasquenta, near Oroville, a possible tooth of a late-Cretaceous plesiosaur was found. The creature, which lived in the water and swallowed rocks for buoyancy, “looked like a Loch Ness monster with big fins.”

As recently as 5 million years ago, during the Ice Age, the North Valley was teeming with herds of bison, horses, bears, camels (several hooves have been found), giant ground sloths and something called the “dire wolf,” a larger, scarier relative of today’s wolves.

Those, however, are like the deer of the prehistoric era: not nearly as cool as the towering Albertosaurus. “I think people are interested in dinosaurs kind of like they’re interested in going to the zoo,” Hilton said. “We go to see the big and fierce things.”

All this is the stuff of childhood fantasy. In fact, in a recent appearance at Barnes & Noble, Hilton told an audience of two dozen rapt 3- to 12-year-olds that he loves dinosaurs as much as they do. “Inside this,” Hilton said, gesturing past his side-swept gray hair and moustache, “I am a 7-year-old boy.

“Maybe in a little while you’ll be able to walk in and see full skeletons of the animals we’re going to be talking about today,” he continued, telling the children about the pterodactyl finger bone his buddy found in Oroville. “These things were flying right over Chico, California, 70 million years ago.”

The kids were sold on the spot; the big-dollar challenge is getting more money out of the grownups of the Northstate.

Barnett has eaten “a lot of chicken dinners” at Rotary and Lions club meetings, telling the story in Glenn, Tehama, Yuba and other surrounding counties.

He came by the project almost by accident. In the mid-1990s, Barnett, who usually studies the evolutionary ecology of birds and mammals, put together a display panel featuring mollusks and other sea creatures. The Langes had just returned from the National Seashell Museum and told Barnett his display rivaled anything they saw there.

“For 29 years I’ve been teaching college students things, but this allows me to have a role in something where K-12 students and adults can learn things,” Barnett said.

The moment when Barnett believed it was really going to happen was when he got the call that the Northern California History Museum would receive the $3 million Prop. 40 grant. A Chico State grad had lobbied her boss, Assemblyman Dick Dickerson, R–Redding, to vie for the award, which was ultimately presented to board members and then-Chico State President Manuel Esteban by Gov. Gray Davis.

Illustration of Albertosaurus by Ken Kirkland from <i>Dinosaurs and Other Mesozoic Reptiles of California</i>.

“I was very positive from the beginning, but it is an extra-ambitious project,” he said. “Having $3 million more in your kitty gives you a lot of confidence.”

The board members believe it was the plan and preparation, combined with the affiliation with Chico State, that pushed them to the top of grant-seekers.

“It’s remarkable how successful we’ve been in a very difficult economic climate,” Sitton said.

Allread and the rest of the fund-raising crew don’t just go door-to-door in tony neighborhoods like some kind of upscale cookie-sellers. There’s a skill to finding out who’s likely to consider giving a large amount and then devising a pitch that will tug at their hearts and wallets, especially when there are many other worthy charities in the area. “It’s not an either-or; it’s a both,” he said. “I’m always surprised how much giving this community does.”

Without one large, private source of funding—such as Redding’s McConnell Foundation—the museum’s campaign will mean approaching everyone the broad-based, 27-member board of directors knows in the hope of reaching those with matching values and pocketbooks. The board members themselves regularly open their pockets for postage, intern stipends or other expenses that come up. Chico State has also granted release time for employees to work on the Web site and other projects.

For the first few years, the strategy was to target what in fund-raising circles is termed “high-wealth” individuals, along with corporations and governments. “You can’t be in a hurry to raise money,” Allread added, but the museum is only a year behind schedule.

One hook is the “naming opportunities,” and for 2 million big ones, you can name the entire museum. “There are two kinds of people: people who like to see their name in lights and those who really want to give something to the community,” Allread said. “So far, we haven’t had any of the ‘name in lights’ people.”

The board is about to shift the effort to a lower-dollar campaign.

“We still have a lot of people to tell this story to,” Sitton said. “There is no donation that we will not certainly respect and need.”

In the case of Sitton and her husband, Gary (who was the first of the pair to get interested in the museum), they sat down and talked about how the museum was an opportunity to enhance the love of learning among children. “I like cultural landmarks. I like things that help kids learn,” said Sitton, a former teacher. Because of the appeal of the conservation component, the Sittons decided to put their $100,000 and names on the Current Age of Conservation.

“I think that any time you make a commitment in terms of dollars and resources, you have to prioritize,” Sitton said. In her case, the retired SunGard Bi-Tech Software co-founder has been dedicating much of her free time to the museum effort. “It just bubbled to the top of my list.”

Another “benefactor"-level donation came from real estate agent Barbara Weibel, who with her husband Garey is sponsoring $100,000 for the Pleistocene Ice Age of Giant Mammals. “I was born in Chico, and it’s time to give something back to the community,” said Weibel, who was one of the first board members and is now its vice president. “We haven’t faltered,” she said, in the past seven years. “I think everybody is thrilled. It would just be a plus for the community. It will be a draw for all over California.”

And, from an investment sense, Weibel laughed, “it’s always good to be diversified.”

Dr. Marcia Moore chose to honor her late husband, James Cornyn, using the largest private gift to date, $500,000, which will fund the hall hosting the Worlds of Northern California.

This academic year, the board’s goals include increasing awareness, expanding the board of directors, completing the architectural and exhibit designs and, oh yes, the little matter of raising another $2.7 million.

“There’s a lot to be done, but we’re all over it,” Barnett said. “We already have enough money now to hire the architect and build one of those permanent exhibits.”

For Lange, who regularly baby-sits her toddler granddaughter, it can’t come soon enough. "It’s going to be so great to walk her through the front door and have her ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ over it. I’m all for immediate gratification."