Experts Misled Public About Yellowstone Fossil Forests
The old story of successive forests buried over long ages silently disappeared from Yellowstone park signs without remorse or apology.
Earlier this month, Creation-Evolution Headlines Editor David Coppedge went looking in Yellowstone for new interpretive signs about Specimen Ridge. Back in 1983 on an earlier visit, he took a picture at a roadside turnout a prominent sign telling—as a matter of scientific fact—that 20 or more forests grew in succession, one on top of the other, each one being buried in turn by volcanic eruptions. Pictures of the old sign can be found at the Real Science Radio website. In addition, the classic Haynes Guide, sold in Yellowstone stores, told the same story: a vision of long ages as successive forests grew in place, becoming buried in place, one after one, millions of years ago.
The old paradigm implied that many tens of thousands of years—perhaps hundreds of thousands of years—were needed for the entire sequence to form. This particular evidence so worried a young college student who had been raised on young-earth creationism that he fretted all night, unable to answer what appeared to be scientific truth. Old-earth creationists such as Davis Young also pointed to Yellowstone’s fossil forests as irrefutable evidence of long ages. The student finally decided that the book of Genesis must be wrong (CMI). Having lost his faith after that night of mental anguish, he eventually became a prominent historian of science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He wrote books about creationism, portraying it as a religious belief at odds with the facts of earth history. His name is Ronald Numbers. (1/12/07)
That was before 1980. In May of that year, Mt. St. Helens erupted.
In the aftermath of what has been called the most significant geological event of the 20th century, geologists were stunned to witness rapid geological change that challenged their slow-and-gradual beliefs. Millions of trees had been toppled by the initial blast. Many of them, stripped bare of bark and carried by a tidal wave, landed in Spirit Lake. Some still float there today, 35 years after the eruption, but quite a few have sunk to the bottom. In 1984, creation geologist Steve Austin was surprised to see floating logs in upright positions at the surface of the lake. Their root balls, having become waterlogged, rotated them into vertical orientation. Austin and his team, studying the bottom of the lake with sonar and then with scuba gear, found a number of trees “planting” themselves upright in thick layers of peat and plant debris (ICR).
Another creation geologist, Dr. Harold Coffin, had studied the fossil forests at Specimen Ridge in detail. In 1979—prior to the volcanic eruption—he published a paper for the Geoscience Research Institute sharing several evidences that cast doubt on secular tale of successive forests. “Widespread flooding associated with volcanic activity and preceding each breccia-mud slide might be responsible for some of the anomalies seen in the organic levels,” he concluded. “…. The absence of animal remains and the lack of agreement between micro- and macroflora (items 3 and 5) suggest transport and sorting in a sea or large lake.” His 1983 book Origin by Design updated his research after the eruption of Mt. St. Helens.
The paradigm shift was slow in taking root. In 1985, secular geologist William J. Fritz compared Mt. St. Helens with Specimen Ridge. In his book Roadside Geology of the Yellowstone Country, which was available in park bookstores, he shared a bit of excitement in the midst of otherwise dry geological accounts: “When I visited the Mount St. Helens area shortly after the eruption, it was just like Yellowstone!” Both the mudflows and the appearance of the trees, he added, looked identical.
Coppedge bought that book in a 1994 return visit; but noticed that the new Hamilton’s Guide (1994) still repeated the old story. Aware that the old sign at Specimen Ridge was gone, he asked a park ranger about it. The ranger said that park geologists no longer believed that interpretation; they were leaning to the new idea that mudflows carried the logs into their current positions.
Sometime between then and now, the official park interpretation had radically changed. There’s still no sign about the fossil forests at Specimen Ridge, but Coppedge took this photo of a fresh, new-looking sign at the Petrified Tree exhibit near Tower Junction.
Four things are notable about the new sign.
- The fossil forests are explained as the result of catastrophic mudflows from massive landslides after volcanic eruptions.
- The sign admits that “Anatomically, the trunk is indistinguishable from present-day redwoods in California.”
- The background picture shows similar trees from Mt. St. Helens as an analogue to Yellowstone’s fossil forests.
- There is no mention of the old paradigm.
The sign still claims, however, that the catastrophic burial happened “50 million years ago” and does not make clear the logs were transported. In fairness to William Fritz, he wrote in his book in 1985 that he still believed some of the trees were buried in place; this sign also makes that suggestion. That possibility, however, does not contradict the evidence that the layered strata show predominantly allochthonous (other-location transport) deposition rather than autochthonous (growing-in-place) fossilization. Harold Coffin provided many evidences that the trees must have been transported: no evidence of soils, roots and limbs truncated, layers that overlap, and much more. His 1997 treatise on the fossil forests can be read online at the Geoscience Research Institute website. Jonathan Sarfati wrote about the forests in 1999 at CMI.
Admission of Wrongdoing?
No admission that the old story was misleading was found in a Google search, nor could we find when the sign was replaced. A short NPS video dated 2007 still claims the trees were buried alive in place (autochthonous deposition) by a series of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, but it omits the evidence of mudflows transporting the trees and doesn’t explain the layering (see also NPS FAQ). The closest thing to an admission the old story was wrong is a National Park Service page about fossils. There’s no date on the page, but the latest reference is from 2013, so it had to be written or revised after that. There’s an indication in the page source code that it was last updated in January 2015.
Around 1900, F. H. Knowlton identified 147 species of fossil plants from Yellowstone, 81 of them new to science. He also proposed the theory that the petrified trees on the northwest end of Specimen Ridge were forests petrified in place.
Additional studies and observations informed a modification of Knowlton’s original hypothesis. Andesitic volcanic eruptions such as the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens showed that trees are uprooted by rapidly flowing volcanic debris flows. The volcanic debris flows not only transported the trees to lower elevations, the trees were also deposited upright. Thus, with increased scientific knowledge, our understanding of Yellowstone’s fossil forests has changed.
What this implies is that Knowlton’s theory did not constitute “understanding.” It was a misunderstanding—one that the park fed to the public uncritically for decades on their interpretive signs. (The NPS still posts Knowlton’s theory on their website as an online book; see his diagram of forest succession, Fig. 4.)
As late as 1998, almost two decades after Mt. St. Helens changed geological paradigms about slow-and-gradual evolution, some Yellowstone paleontologists were still not up to date. An interesting NPS publication by Vincent Santucci called “The Yellowstone Paleontological Survey” (1998), is still online. Apparently intended for park staff, this document, on its Fossil Chronology page, still claims that the Lamar River formation “contains 27 layers of petrified forest.” Even more interesting are statements on the Interpretation Page about dealing with the public:
Public misconceptions, media misinformation, controversial scientific opinions, and issues associated with evolution and geologic time can present obstacles when interpreting paleontology. This has frequently been the case in other parks with fossil resources, such as Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, Badlands National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, Fossil Butte National Monument, Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, and Petrified Forest National Park. Strategies related to paleontological interpretation have been discussed during previous National Park Service Paleontological Resource Conferences. Specific training associated with interpreting fossils has been conducted at many of the NPS units that preserve fossil resources.
A variety of interpretive themes could be developed for Yellowstone’s paleontological resources. Pick a moment in time when Yellowstone’s story is best told. The Yellowstone story is dynamic and not yet finished. The fossil record of life provides evidence of the ancient wildlife and ancient forests of Yellowstone. The fossilized remains of plants and animals hold some of the secrets of Yellowstone’s past that are yet to be discovered.
What this suggests is that in the 1990s, park rangers were being confronted by certain tourists about evolution and geologic time at a number of parks. To Santucci, their “misconceptions” needed to be corrected. He states that the park had programs to train rangers about responding to “controversial” views with the right “strategies.” But who was wrong: the skeptics, or the experts? Santucci himself, in his own document, was still presenting the old story of successive layers of fossil forests! Maybe some of the rangers should be listening instead of teaching.
Old theories die hard. A web page at YellowstonePark.com (not an official national park website) still repeats the old story, claiming 50 forests grew on top of each other in succession over millions of years. Even the new sign at Petrified Tree is not clear that the trees were transported from a distance. In short, despite 35 years after Mt. St. Helens, some official and unofficial information sources are still telling the public that the trees were buried in place, despite “increased scientific knowledge” that “our understanding … has changed.”
The magnitude of this paradigm shift cannot be overemphasized. It’s comparable to the change in explanation at the Channeled Scablands, where the old slow-and-gradual explanation gave way to J Harlan Bretz’s evidence that the channels were carved catastrophically when an ice age lake breached its dam (4/30/09). If the forests at Specimen Ridge were transported from elsewhere, all those successive layers could have been deposited within hours, or sunk in a lake over a few decades or centuries, not millions of years. The scale of the deposits (covering 40 square miles) is massive. Spirit Lake looks like a play tub compared to this. The power of the volcanoes would have dwarfed anything we witness today. Additionally, the uprooted trees had to be transported downhill over long distances. The species of trees is also amazing; redwoods, deciduous trees and species like breadfruit not growing anywhere in that region now. Since nothing else in the world we know of compares to the Yellowstone fossil forests, the dogma of uniformitarianism faces a severe challenge in Yellowstone.
So did Ronald Numbers return to his Biblical faith when he found out the old-earth interpretation was wrong? Not as far as we know. His reputation is on the line now. When he abandoned his faith, he started down a different path, finding confirmation from the writings of atheists and old-earthers for his new chosen worldview. Genesis was now in his rear-view mirror as he published book after book portraying the battle between creationists and the “facts” of science. Though by most accounts he is a fair-minded historian, the damage was done in college. There’s little chance of turning back now. A man is unlikely to abandon his writings and teachings over decades.
Some doubt that Numbers was influenced solely by the “facts” of Specimen Ridge that confronted him. Only God knows if there were other motivations in his mind for turning away. His story shows, however, the fallacy of trusting in “scientific fact” as presented by positivist secular materialists. Students need to learn how to think critically, realizing that “current scientific opinion” is always tentative and malleable, especially in matters of the unobservable past.
Old-earth creationists continue explaining away this evidence, usually pointing to differences between Mt. St. Helens and Yellowstone. By this they forget that the scale of the Flood catastrophe was orders or magnitude greater than puny little Mt. St. Helens, a very modest eruption as volcanoes go. They think old-earth creationism would have spared Ronald Numbers’ faith, but if Numbers was led to believe he could not trust Genesis, why should he trust anything else in the Bible? It comes down to this: whose word will you trust, the word of the Creator who never lies, who was there, or the word of fallible men who weren’t there, who often have an ulterior motive to explain the world in slow-and-gradual evolutionary terms? (See II Peter 3:1-6.)
Our readers will certainly want to ponder the implications of the overthrow of this case of “irrefutable evidence” for long ages. Being a secular scientist means you never have to say you were wrong. You can claim this story shows how science is a self-correcting process, and quietly sweep the old “facts of science” under the rug.