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VERNAL — The guest book on the front desk at the Utah Field House of Natural History Museum State Park gives just a glimpse of the popularity that dinosaurs still enjoy.
There are entries from local residents and some from nearby Colorado or Wyoming sandwiched between the names of visitors from Florida, Virginia, Washington and even Belgium.
"We've definitely seen an increase, anywhere from 10 to 15 percent or more, in visitation," said park manager Steve Sroka.
Much of the bump is associated with the recent re-opening of the renovated visitor center and quarry exhibit hall at Dinosaur National Monument less than 20 miles away, Sroka said. But the Field House will soon have its own new attraction that state parks officials hope will also draw many more people.
"We're enlarging the paleontology lab by two-and-a-half times its current size, and we'll have viewable windows and a way for people to communicate with volunteers and staff that are working in there preparing fossils," Sroka said.
"It will enhance the visitors' experience," he added, following a ceremonial groundbreaking Wednesday for the 11,664-square-foot fossil repository and laboratory building that will be added to the west wall of the museum.
The state-of-the-art facility will allow museum staff to properly store and prepare more than 30,000 fossils and artifacts that have been discovered in the Uintah Basin. These priceless pieces of Utah's prehistoric past are currently being held in the dilapidated, 63-year-old building that used to be home to the Field House before the current museum was opened several years ago.
Without the new repository and lab, many of the stored fossil and artifacts were destined for six different museums in cities from San Diego to Pittsburgh, according to Utah State Parks and Recreation.
Sonja Norton, who serves as chair of the Uintah Impact Mitigation Special Service District and as a member of the Vernal City Council, called such a scenario "devastating."
The district, which is funded by mineral lease monies paid out by oil and natural gas companies working in Utah, agreed to pick up the entire $1.5-million tab for the museum expansion.
"We wanted to build something that we could store these fossils and artifacts and study them and make them available to the public," Norton said.
"This is Dinosaurland," she said. "This is where the dinosaurs are and to have those fossils leaving our area — that's part of our heritage."
Ascent Construction expects to have footings for the building poured by next week, with walls going up the week after that. It has set an Oct. 18 completion date, said company marketing director Bob Murri.
Such a short construction window is critical so that the fossils and artifacts can be safely moved before winter arrives, Sroka said.
"We have to make sure everything is carefully moved and secured so nothing breaks, is damaged or even stolen," he said, adding that the six-month wait will still be like "Christmas is coming."
"You see the packages, but they're not open yet," Sroka said. "It will be like Christmas when we get the building open."