University of Pittsburgh
January 23, 2006

Pitt Honors College Receives 4,700 Acres of Wyoming Land Teeming with Dinosaur Fossils

Cattle rancher Allen Cook's gift worth nearly $7 million
Contact:  412-624-4147

PITTSBURGH—Wyoming rancher Allen Cook has given the University of Pittsburgh Honors College 4,700 acres of land in eastern Wyoming containing rich dinosaur fossil beds rivaling the nearby famed fossil beds excavated a century ago through the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie.

Cook's gift, valued at approximately $7 million, will make possible the preservation of what is arguably a priceless national treasure for research by Pitt students and faculty, as well as by Pitt research partners—scientists from Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History and faculty and students from the University of Wyoming.

The Carnegie's renowned paleontologist, Mary Dawson—who visited the site—said it has "tremendous potential" for fossil discovery. The land contains the same geological formations and sits near the site of some of the most profound paleontological discoveries in recent history.

Pitt's Honors College has an ongoing connection to the state of Wyoming: Each summer since 1989, it has offered the Yellowstone Field Course, a one-of-a-kind program in Yellowstone National Park and its surroundings, in which students explore the geological, ecological, and cultural dimensions of Yellowstone and its environs.

Pitt's insight into connecting the land to learning was a key reason Cook looked to the University when making his gift.

"I'm thrilled to be handing over the stewardship of this land to the University of Pittsburgh's Honors College, because its leaders have an exciting vision for discovering all the land promises for education and research," said Cook. "Their understanding of its delicate ecosystem and their interest in collaborating with other institutions in the nation assured me that the ranch land I love would be used for the highest purposes."

"Extraordinary gifts play a critical role in shaping and enhancing any great university," said Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, "and Mr. Cook has presented our University with one of the most extraordinary gifts of all—his trust that the University of Pittsburgh will be a faithful steward of the land he has cherished for so many years. We are deeply grateful for his generosity, which will benefit Pitt students and scholars, as well as our partners from the broader community, in perpetuity. Mr. Cook's decision to make this unique gift also is a reflection of his confidence in the leadership team in our Honors College. In particular, Dean Alec Stewart and Program Director Edward McCord have demonstrated a creative commitment to the use of this land that was appealing to Mr. Cook and that will add a special richness to the educational experiences available through Pitt."

The Honors College will shepherd the curriculum to be developed for the ranch.

"Allen Cook's gift will generate a cascade of opportunities over the years for our students and faculty and with colleagues at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the University of Wyoming (UW), with whom we will partner in research," said Stewart, who first learned about Cook's ranch through a West Coast land economist and ranch appraiser with knowledge of Pitt's Yellowstone endeavor. "We are especially grateful to colleagues at UW for their early and enthusiastic collaboration in this initiative.

"This clearly positions us to have an immediate impact through field programs centered in paleontology," said Stewart, "but also extending beyond that to anthropology and environmental studies, and even Western literature and history. Most immediately, we will expand our established Yellowstone Field Course located at the other corner of Wyoming with this additional setting and new institutional collaborations."

What makes Cook's donated land so remarkable is that it encompasses the Morrison, Sundance, and Cloverly formations. It was on the Morrison Formation at nearby Sheep Creek in 1899 that Carnegie Museum researchers discovered the nearly complete skeleton of Diplodocus carnegii, affectionately referred to as Dippy, which remains the centerpiece of the museum's exhibition space.

In addition to containing fossils from the mid-Jurassic period, the land shows great promise for exploration of a continuum of historic natural treasures. The Sundance Formation has potential for producing Mesozoic marine animal fossils. And the Cloverly Formation represents the Early Cretaceous Interval that is not well known. Dawson, curator emerita of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum and recipient of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's highest award, notes that it was in the Cloverly that an important dinosaur—"the nasty little Deinonychus"—was discovered relatively recently.

"Who knows what other unknown creatures might be lurking in the Cloverly?" Dawson asked.

Carnegie director Bill R. DeWalt, who also visited the site, said, "I am personally very gratified to see this donation, because it will help to preserve an area of land that is scientifically invaluable for documenting the history of Earth and its inhabitants. Carnegie Museum of Natural History looks forward to continuing its collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh's Honors College in exploring the potential of this significant property."

McCord, who teaches the environmental component of the Honors College Yellowstone Field program, was the driving force in securing the land for the University through his numerous trips to the area and visits with Cook. He also teaches in the University's Environmental Studies Program.

Cook's gift is part of the University's Discover a World of Possibilities capital campaign, the most successful such fundraising campaign in the history of both the University and Southwestern Pennsylvania. To date, more than $880 million has been raised toward the campaign's $1 billion goal.