Landowner to decide fate of Seattle tusk

Property owners have say over such discoveries in state

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SEATTLE — The fate of the mammoth tusk found at a construction site in downtown Seattle this week is entirely up to the landowner, a national expert said Thursday.

Washington state has no laws governing finds of this type. And Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies and Montana State University said that is true anywhere in the United States.

"Americans like their private land," said Horner, one of the nation's most famous paleontologists. Americans don't like to pass laws putting restrictions on owners of private land, even to protect history, he said.

There are some protection laws in Canada. In the province of Alberta, for example, a find like a mammoth tusk would automatically belong to the province, Horner said.

He hopes the landowner in this case will donate the tusk to the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington. It's a relatively rare find and should be preserved for educational reasons, so children will know mammoths once lived in Seattle, he said.

"A lot of times, people think these things are worth a lot of money," Horner said. Their true value is educational, not what someone can sell a tusk for on eBay, he said.

Alaina Smith, director of external affairs at the museum, said museum officials have been working with the property owners.

"They've agreed to allow the Burke to excavate the fossil. They've been very supportive. They're great," Smith said.

Scott Koppelman, senior vice president at AMLI Residential, which is constructing an apartment building on the land, said their first response when they heard of the find was to determine how the community could benefit from it.

"The excavation will cause us some construction delay, but the scientific and educational benefits of this discovery clearly outweigh the costs and delay. This is an exciting discovery for our local Northwest history," Koppelman said.

Mammoths lived all over the United States and Europe in ancient times, but finding a tusk or any part of those animals is rare, Horner and other experts said.

"We don't find them every year or even every five years," he said. In most cases, artifacts found at construction sites are destroyed by a big machine before anyone even notices them, Horner said.

Allyson Brooks, the state preservation officer, said the situation would be different if construction workers had found human remains or other items of archaeological value because the state has laws for those situations.

With paleontological finds, the landowner can do whatever he wants -- sell it, destroy it, donate it or ignore it, Brooks said.

In 2004, Washington state halted construction on a section of a major bridge project, on which $58 million had already been spent, at the request of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe after remains of an ancient Indian village and burial ground were discovered.

Discoveries of animal remains from the ice age are less common than human remains in Western Washington. Preservation of bone and tusks depends on the environmental conditions, such as the water table, the acidity of the soil and how deeply the object was buried, Brooks said.

"A lot of time, teeth preserve better than other bones," she said, likening tusks to teeth. She said teeth and tusks are what she and the scientists she works with consider "biological rock."