Florissant Fossil Beds to build visitor center

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is getting its long-awaited visitor center – a 4,400 square-foot facility expected to open in 2013 and be powered almost entirely by solar power.

The National Park Service announced plans this week for a visitor education, research and museum facility, which will replace the old building currently serving as the visitor center. Florissant is about 40 miles west of Colorado Springs.

The monument expects the project to bring additional economic activity to Teller County in the form of food, fuel and lodging for construction workers. Construction on the new visitor center is expected to begin this fall and is estimated to cost between $2 and $3 million, said Keith Payne, superintendent of the monument.

Park rangers at the monument are thrilled. They’ve been lobbying for a full-scale visitor center since the Fossil Beds National Monument opened in 1969. The monument is home to one of the richest and most diverse fossil deposits in the world where visitors can see petrified redwood stumps up to 14 feet wide and thousands of detailed fossils of insects and plants that reveal the story of prehistoric Colorado.

The park has 10,000 to 12,000 specimens in its collection, but less than 1 percent currently on display. The new space will better protect thousands of fragile fossils now being stored in substandard conditions in other park buildings, Payne said. The added space will allow for more fossils to be displayed and will feature interactive exhibits, Payne said.

“Everybody on staff here has been hoping for years for this center,” Payne said. “To see the thing bear fruit, well, just imagine a deer in the headlights — we are stunned and really happy.”

The monument currently operates a 1,800-square-foot visitor center, housed in the old Pike Petrified Forest tourist contact station built out of salvaged materials in 1924. The station is too small for the needs of the Fossil Beds National Monument, which attracts about 65,000 visitors a year.

“It’s a wood frame structure and the foundation is cracking,” Payne said. “The necessary repairs would exceed the value of the building.”

The new building will be two and a half times bigger and be energy efficient with nearly all of the new building’s electrical and heating needs supplied through solar panels and solar hot water systems. It will be one of the best examples of sustainable, energy-efficient construction in the National Park Service, Payne said.

“We wanted it to be a demonstration project for the park service,” he said.

Payne is hoping the new center will attract more visitors to the park, which contributes more than $3 million dollars a year to the local economy.

“Our park partners and communities have been fighting for years to get it built because they know that Florissant Fossil Beds visitors deserve the best experience they can have,” he said. “And the fossils deserve the best protection possible.”

During construction, the monument will continue to be open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, year-round.  Regular park visitor services and programs will continue.

To learn more about the visitor center, visit Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument’s website at www.nps.gov/flfo and click the link for “Visitor Center 2013.”