A fossil-rich Gloucester County sandpit that has long provided a window into the past may also hold a view of the future.
The Inversand Co., the Township of Mantua, and Drexel University are working on a preliminary proposal to transform the 65-acre site near Route 55 into an educational attraction.
While no costs have been estimated or drawings made, the concept calls for creating a "world-class fossil park" where children and adults could enjoy hands-on experience of paleontology. Visitors also could watch Drexel scientists and students at work.
"If we are able to develop it to its full potential, there's going to be a lot to see," says Drexel associate professor Kenneth Lacovara, who regularly conducts digs in "the pit." One of his students found the fossilized remains of a 65 million-year-old sea turtle there in 2011.
While the Inversand property may hold clues about the fate of the dinosaurs, as well as climate change, it is hardly Jurassic Park. No one's talking about turning it into a tourist trap.
"We know it's something special," says Michelle Bruner, Mantua's economic development coordinator. "We want to preserve it."
The township could apply for county land acquisition funds to purchase the property, she adds, noting that Inversand is willing to consider selling.
The firm has mined glauconite, commonly called "marl" or "green sand" and often used in water filtration, since the 1920s. But president Alan Davis says the company now offers cheaper alternatives, and only three people still work at the pit.
The fossil park "is a great idea, as opposed to filling it in and putting up another shopping center," adds Davis, who has been with Inversand for 42 years.
"It's a remarkable place," says State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), whose district includes Mantua. A "community dig" in October drew hundreds of local residents, he notes.
"Kids with sand buckets, digging for fossils to take home," Norcross says. "What kid doesn't grow up knowing all about dinosaurs?"
I certainly did. So it's a treat to carefully clamber 40 feet down into the pit, where Lacovara, six Drexel students, a visitor from Columbia University, and an amateur fossil hunter from Westmont are digging trenches to drain water from their work area.
"It's been a rough summer for us, with the weather," says Lacovara, who's 52 and lives in Swedesboro. "And down here, there's no shade and no breeze."
The crew is sweaty but otherwise undeterred. "I've been wanting to do this since I was 3," says Erik Breitenstein, 23, who grew up and still lives in Blackwood.
Sporting a T-shirt with a logo for Mastodon (the band, not the ancient critter), Breitenstein, a graduate student, says he "would have loved a chance" to visit a fossil park when he was growing up.
Graduate student Aja Carter, 21, of Philadelphia, likewise loves the idea of the pit becoming a place where kids could get a chance to share the joy in science she's felt since her own childhood.
"We have a really amazing site," says Zach Boles, a doctoral student and Philadelphia resident who found the fossilized sea turtle two years ago.
"There will be opportunities for people to come here and learn about the history of the Earth," Boles, 25, says. "Right in their backyard."
Lacovara hands me a small cardboard container - like a jewelry box - containing the latest significant find.
It's a turtle jaw, 65 million years old, precise and almost pristine on its fuzzy cotton bed.
"It's the real thing," Lacovara says. "Touch it."
I think I shouldn't. What if it breaks?
It doesn't. But I do get a chill.