Posted on March 14, 2013

Madera County: Students in Chowchilla See Fossils With Help From PG&E

By Tracy Correa

CHOWCHILLA – Cody Clark, 10, oozed with excitement as he played in a sand pit digging up replica fossils.

On any other school day, Cody and other Fairmead Elementary School students would have been tucked behind a desk in a classroom. But on Wednesday (March 13), they were digging in the dirt at the Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County.

Ten-year-old Natalie Gomez, a student at Fairmead Elementary School, shows no fear as the Fossil Discovery Center’s Conrad Gaunt pretends to take a bite out of her head with a large animal fossil. (Photos by Tracy Correa.)

“This is awesome. It’s the first fossil I ever dug up,” said Cody, as he wiped away dirt from what looked to be a large bone.

Thanks to a $2,500 donation from PG&E, nearly 500 third- and fifth-grade students from Chowchilla Elementary School District in Madera County visited the Fossil Discovery Center over the past several weeks. PG&E also provided a $1,000 grant to the small, nonprofit museum located in a nondescript building just off Highway 99 between farm fields in Chowchilla and considered a hidden gem by many in the area.

The students would not have had any field trips this year if not for PG&E’s help, said Terry Barnes, principal of Fairmead Elementary. “I think this shows PG&E’s support of education,” she said.

The students didn’t have to travel very far to get to the Fossil Discovery Center, but it took them worlds away from their classroom, said school officials.

Fossils unearthed in a landfill

The Fossil Discovery Center opened in 2010 after animal fossils were discovered at the county-operated Fairmead Landfill across the street over the course of 17 years. The landfill holds what is believed to be the largest deposit of fossils on the West Coast.

Jackie Reichard, a volunteer at the Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County, carefully chips away dirt from historic animal bones recently uncovered at the landfill across the street.

As of now, 15,000 fossils have been excavated from the site, with continued digging planned for at least another 20 years. The fossils represent animals that lived in the area during from the Middle-Pleistocene age – about 700,000 years ago.  Animal fossils discovered include those from the Columbian mammoth, saber tooth cat, sloth, dire wolf, camel and horses — many of them on display at the Fossil Discovery Center. The animals were believed to have lived in the area because it was warm and contained a water source where the landfill is now located.

PG&E got involved with helping the students and the Fossil Discovery Center because local employees wanted to do something to help the small district that has had to make painful budget cuts, said Mary Diebert, a senior customer relationship manager for PG&E in Madera. “The school district basically lost funding for field trips,” said Diebert, who has worked with the district to improve its energy efficiency.

Diebert worked with PG&E’s Anna Brooks, Central Valley government relations manager, to secure grant money for the district and the Fossil Discovery Center. Diebert also worked with the discovery center on energy efficiency during construction of its building several years ago.

PG&E donation welcomed

Blake Bufford, executive director of the Fossil Discovery Center, said the donation is a huge help. “We are a nonprofit and we can use every penny we get. We couldn’t do this without our volunteers and donors,” said Bufford, who is also a paleontologist.

Cody Clark, 10, is excited to find replica bones in a digging area at the Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County.

Bufford splits his time between the museum and overseeing digs at the landfill. Any time construction crews dig on undisturbed soil at the landfill, Bufford or other experts, trail behind them looking for more bones to flag for careful excavation.

The details of how the field trip came to be probably didn’t matter much to students Wednesday, who were busy marveling at each bone at the museum — including a 13-pound tooth from a Columbian mammoth.

“I think it’s cool,” said Jennifer Davis, one of the students.

E-mail Tracy Correa at Tracy.Correa@pge.com.

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