Prehistoric Colorado is getting an update at the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument as a new visitor center is under construction.

Originally constructed in the 1920s, the old visitor center was demolished last November in order to make way for a new $2.54 million facility slated for completion by the spring of 2013.

The former building had served the National Park Service as its visitor center since 1974 as an informational attraction and research center for tourists, scientists and students from pre-school to college-age.

Because of its proximity to Lake George in southeastern Park County, the Fossil Beds have ties to that part of the county. From Lake George it's only 4.6 miles southeast down U.S. 24 to Florissant, in Teller County, and then another 3.4 miles down Teller County Road 1 to the fossil beds.

The National Park Service is working out of a portable building and is still open for tours, but the staff and volunteers are looking forward to the new building.

Planning for the new building began in 2002 but it wasn't until 2006 that its construction costs were included in the National Park Service's five-year plan, and funding for the new visitor center was made available in 2011.

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is a U.S. National Monument that was formerly known as Pike Petrified Forest, a privately owned and operated attraction that hosted visitors who stepped off the train at the depot in Florissant and walked along the tracks gathering wildflowers during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The fossil beds were studied as early as 1807 and noted as an area of extreme interest by scientists. It took more than 50 years of advocacy for the fossil beds to receive protection as a National Monument.

The 6,000-acre park was established as a National Monument in 1969 and is one of eight locations in the National Park system set aside specifically to preserve its fossil resources.

Local economic impact

Park Superintendent Keith Payne has been involved in the planning of the new facility since the beginning, noting that "the impact on the local economy is huge."

The park has attempted to keep its business local when possible, using area contractors such as Colorado Springs- based TAB Construction, which is also working on the new Lake George Charter School building now under construction.

Facilities Manager Troy Fuhrman oversees the maintenance of the park and monitors the construction process.

"We looked at the space we had and wanted to construct the best building environment possible," Fuhrman said.

Energy-efficient design

Eco-friendly and energy efficient "green" building design concepts have been incorporated into the new building, which conforms to standards known as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), which were developed by the U.S. Green Building Council.

LEED certification provides independent, third-party verification that a building was designed and constructed using strategies aimed at achieving high performance in sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.

For instance, Fuhrman said, solar panels will be used to heat up water for the radiant heat in the floors.

In addition, he said, the use of structurally insulated panels, which consist of 8-10 inches of thick foam insulation between two boards, will exceed an R-30 value rating. The roof is rated even higher, at a value of R-50.

"The glass in the central tower has dual purpose; to serve as a light source while providing passive solar to collect heat," Fuhrman said.

"Vents located at the top of the tower can be adjusted to open when it becomes too hot, venting the hot air out and cooling the building. There is no need for air conditioning," Fuhrman said.

According to Fuhrman, it is estimated that the annual utility costs will be "almost net-zero."

A new septic system has been installed to further reduce the impact on the environment. Coupled with low-flow plumbing, water usage will be kept to a minimum.

Environmental considerations also include the elevation of the building on a concrete pad rather than a traditional foundation due to the possibility that breaking ground could damage fossil records beneath.

On schedule

According to Fuhrman, everything is still on schedule even with weather considerations, which are always a factor in the mountains.

"We are pleased to date with the construction progress that has been made," Fuhrman said.

The 4,400-square-foot facility will include interactive exhibit space, a paleontology laboratory, a theater/media center, and offices.

"With the new paleontology lab we will have a more formal and professional environment. Currently, paleontologists are splitting their work area between a yurt and a 1950s A-frame cabin that doesn't have fire suppression," Fuhrman said.

"The stuff that is coming out of here is world-class, and soon we will have a facility that will reflect that," Fuhrman said.

Many of these perfectly preserved fossils are located in museums throughout the world such as the Smithsonian and Denver Museum of Nature and Science as well as universities such as Harvard and Yale.

The new, energy-efficient building will include large fossil displays and interactive exhibits, a research lab and storage facility, and a bookstore.

Fossil record

According to the official informational brochure, the fossil beds received recognition as a significant area of note due to the unique geological record and preservation of fossils from the Eocene period 35 million years ago.

Imagine a warmer Pacific West Coast rainforest environment with tall redwoods, lush ferns, and abundant birds, insects and small mammals.

Over time, flora and fauna were encased in sediment that was created by massive mudflows comprised of ash and water from what is known as the Thirtynine Mile Volcanic Area surrounding Guffey, Colo. This area is located about 15 miles to the southwest of the fossil beds and encompasses parts of eastern Park County and western Teller County.

The powerful mud flows, or "lahars," could travel 150 mph down the slopes while covering and destroying everything in their paths.

Some of the largest petrified tree stumps in the world are located within the park. Petrified redwood stumps were found entombed in up to 15 feet of mud and volcanic debris. Some of the remaining stumps are at least 12 feet in diameter.

In another geological event, thin layers of shale were formed from the rain of volcanic dust and ash, and those layers of shale settled at the bottom of ancient Lake Florissant, thus trapping and preserving other fossilized remains encased in the strata found at the site. Numerous species of birds, insects, fish, ferns, flowers and leaves are included in more than 50,000 specimens already collected.

Preserved over millennia, the fossil remains still not uncovered are considered precious, and the new building is designed to ensure there will be minimal impact on the environment.

65,000 visitors

Next year, visitors will be greeted at the new visitor information desk constructed entirely out of wood salvaged from beetle-killed ponderosa pine.

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