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The Secret History of the World Oregon/Washington BLM



The Secret History of the World

At an undisclosed location in central Oregon, landlocked by private land, there are 800 acres of terra firma that can tell the history of the world.

story by Toshio Suzuki
illustration by Matt Christenson

Thanks to the right mixture of a good fossil record and layer upon layer of ancient volcanic ash, Logan Butte has about 40 million years of continuous history, which is enough to make this Oregon parcel very well known among the global paleontology community.

Logan Butte is an Area of Critical Environmental Concern for the Bureau of Land Management, meaning it deserves and requires special protection. It also means it is not a tourist destination.

The place has been continuously studied-and sometimes pilfered-since 1864.(1) As recently retired BLM paleontologist John Zancanella said, "For our history here in Oregon, 1860 is pretty early."

In addition to Zancanella, who helped manage the butte for 24 years, the following is a discussion with two additional scientists, in their own words, on the value of studying Logan Butte.

Ancient Teeth
photo by Michael Campbell

The Study of Change

Josh Samuels (curator, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument): We can see how the life changed, how the plants and animals changed, what went extinct, what survived, what adapted. Really for North America, it is the best place to study how things changed in one place over time.

Zancanella: The story told here is not found almost anywhere else in the world. We have 40 million years of continuous rock sequence here ... the rising of those Cascades basically deposited those ash results that can be dated.

Samuels: Most the fossils we have in Oregon, we can tell people how old they are by about a million years.

Samantha Hopkins (geology professor, University of Oregon): The rocks from Logan Butte are from the middle of the Oligocene.(2) It's a time period that isn't very well known.

Zancanella: You get to look at evolution over a long period of time. Plants, animals, climatic change, moving of the continent - you can only find that in one other place in the world - it's like between India and Pakistan.

Samuels: The only other place in the world where you can really do it is in Pakistan - and Pakistan is not really an easy place to go and study fossils.

Oregon Diversity, a Million Years at a Time

Samuels: Logan Butte was a really warm, wet environment ... palms and bananas, kiwis. Right around 33 million years ago, things really dramatically started to change. And some of that is documented at Logan's Butte.

Zancanella: The exposure there actually represents a slice of time and a setting that we don't get to see very often: foothill, low mountain setting that had stream channels running through it.

Public Lands, Public Fossils

Zancanella: The very first fossil (Samuels) found there was a brand new species. That pretty much hooks you.

Samuels: That first thing I found (at Logan Butte) ... a little mouse ... is the smallest animal we know at that time. Less than half as big as a deer mouse known today with teeth about the size of a period at the end of a sentence.

Hopkins: We did, in fact, find the pocket mouse, which is a new species, on Josh's first trip there.

Samuels: A lot of animals are preserved there ... three-toed horses, early rhinos, dog species...

Hopkins: Saber-toothed 'cats', called nimravids.

Zancanella: A marine reptile with a short neck and 3-foot-long head ... basically a Loch Ness Monster-well, we call it a Loch Ness Monster.

Samuels: Archaeotherium-hell pigs or giant pigs.

Hopkins: Horses, which were the size of small gazelles at the time.

Samuels: The fossils from (Logan Butte), a lot of them are remarkably complete. Nice, beautiful, complete skulls.

Hopkins: All we're really looking at are the animals. We found some really nice rodent jaws and teeth, including the mouse jaw Josh is working on.

Samuels: Our job is to go find them, bring them back to the museum, preserve them so future generations, everybody can see them, they can enjoy them, they can learn from them.

Zancanella: I think we're going to continue to find more there: We've only scratched-metaphorically speaking-scratched the surface there.

Mountains of History
photo by Jeff Clark

National and Global Significance

Samuels: We want to tell the public about the importance of these places but we also want to protect them. These fossils belong to everyone.

Zancanella: You can't just hike in there either, because you'll be trespassing on private land. Logan Butte is totally landlocked by private boundaries.

Hopkins: Logan Butte is key because it's on BLM land. All federal lands require a permit ... in order to hold a permit you need to have a Ph.D. in your relevant field.(3)

Samuels: Not all of the important fossils sites are located within the (John Day Fossil Beds National Monument) - majority are outside on public-private land.

Zancanella: Park Service small units are surrounded by way more BLM land. It motivates the agencies to work together. This was the best part of my job - working with the Park Service and learning about all this. Most of eastern Oregon is pretty damn special.

Samuels: This place is really of national and global significance It's the most significant site on BLM land in Oregon.


1. "Allocyon, a New Canid Genus from the John Day Beds of Oregon," was published in 1930 after Charles W. Merriam found fossils at Logan Butte.

2. The Oligocene Epoch, from approximately 34 million to 23 million years ago, is known for a period of time that transitioned from the tropical to more modern ecosystems.

3. The Paleontological Resources Preservation Act of 2009 means business; basically, if the fossil has vertebrae, don't take it from public lands. Read more here.

And continue your trip to the past with a visit to the BLM's archaeological and historic homepage!