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Couple unearths 60-million-year-old tree east of Buffalo

Via Wyoming News Exchange

BUFFALO - Jeanne Peterson and her husband, Robert Suchor, weren't necessarily surprised to find an ancient tree beneath the surface of their property east of Buffalo.

Destined to become an RV campground, the couple's land sits just south of the Bureau of Land Management's Dry Creek Petrified Tree Environmental Education Area, where petrified trees provide evidence of a much different landscape 60 million years ago than exists today.

"There's more to the desert than meets the eye," Peterson said.

The petrified wood both on the BLM managed site and on couple's property are remnants of Metasequoia trees, also called dawn redwoods, that towered as high as 150 feet over what is believed to have been a swampy, wet environment tens of millions of years ago during what's known as the Eocene geological era.

According to the BLM, this prehistoric ecosystem is what led to the development of coal in the Powder River Basin.

Ellen Currano, a professor of paleobotany at the University of Wyoming, said Metasequoia trees currently only grow naturally in China and it's planted in places with a lot of moisture.

"Starting toward the end of the age of the dinosaurs and going to maybe 45 million years ago, these areas of Wyoming that today are sagebrush steppe were covered by swamp forests and a lot of Metasequoia and broadleaved angiosperm trees, so the landscape would've looked a lot more like South Carolina than it does like modern- day Wyoming," she said.

Before this summer, the couple knew they were in the presence of fossilized trees, picking up large pieces of petrified wood around the desert strewn with sagebrush and surrounded by red hills. Then, while digging a water line for the campground, they found an entire tree.

"He dug all along the sides of it with a backhoe to uncover it, and that's how we realized how big and long it was," she said. "It looks like it just fell there."

Petrified wood forms when a tree is buried, thus eliminating bacteria and other biotic interactions that can lead to decay, Currano said. Cellulose, which makes up the cell walls in the wood, and lignin, the tough material around the cells, does not break down or decay easily. Mineral-rich water then flows through the wood and minerals grow within the cells.

"It's super cool how big that is, something of that size does not get preserved very much," Currano said. "More often you have just a tree stump and foliage, but finding something that big is quite cool."

As she posed for photos beside the tree as it lay horizon- tally in the ground, Peterson's comparably small stature showed just how big it is in both height and diameter. A self-proclaimed rockhound, she and her husband were excited by their unique find, though they were at a loss for what to do with it.

As is common these days, Peterson took to social media for advice, specifically posting to a Wyoming rockhounding group for amateur mineral collectors.

Suggestions were wide ranging – contact relevant agencies, donate it to a museum, keep digging to find more that are definitely underground, sell it.

"Someone said, 'Oh gosh, you could pay for your campground with that.' I'm like, 'Tell me who wants to buy it,'" Peterson said.

Currano had a similar sentiment. While dinosaur fossils could bring in millions of dollars, she said, plant remains don't bring in that kind of cash. She has seen pieces of petrified wood sell at gem and mineral shows, though she isn't sure what the going rate is.

Ultimately, the couple decided that they will rent the equipment needed to haul the hulking yet delicate wood from the ground and display it at their campground.

Peterson said it's likely that they'll have to remove the tree piece by piece and reassemble it once it's above ground.

It'll be the centerpiece of their new business, expected to open next spring, which Peterson said was originally slated to be called Bighorn View Campground but will now be called Bighorn Petrified Tree RV Campground, or something similar.

Once the fossilized tree is on display, it will be important to Peterson to have it open and available to the public and to preserve its history at the same time.

"We've been up to the BLM site, and people have taken whatever petrified wood off the site," she said, though its removal is prohibited. "We want to keep that from happening. We'll put a fence around it and a placard that says what it is and a little about the history of this area."

Peterson said she's had campgrounds in the region reach out offering to take the tree. But she's made it clear it will stay right where it is.

"A campground from South Dakota emailed me and said they'd love to have that in their campground. I'm like, uh, this isn't going to South Dakota," she said. "It's not leaving Wyoming, this is Wyoming history."

This story was published on November 16, 2023.

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