U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell headlined the dedication of the Waco Mammoth National Monument on Monday, marveling at the local partnership that developed it and persevered to win the site national park status.

“What a treasure the Waco Mammoth Site is,” Jewell told an invited crowd of about 200.

“The Waco Mammoth National Monument has a lovely ring to it. I don’t think in the history of the National Park Service has someone delivered us a national park in a box with a bow on it.”

Jewell joined former first lady Laura Bush at the event, along with National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, Baylor University President Ken Starr, city and state elected officials, former U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, and current U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-College Station.

Bush, who frequently spends time with former President George W. Bush at their Crawford ranch, said she was impressed by her tour of the mammoth site and will come back with grandkids in tow.

Bush said she “has collected national parks like stamps,” and she is a co-chairwoman with First Lady Michelle Obama for the National Park Service centennial celebration.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order July 10 declaring the paleontological site at 6220 Steinbeck Bend Drive a national monument. Twenty-four Ice Age Columbian mammoths have been discovered since 1978 at the site, including a unique “nursery herd” buried by a mudslide.

The site opened to tours in late 2009 after a $4.2 million campaign by the Waco Mammoth Foundation in partnership with the city of Waco and Baylor University.

Under a unique arrangement, that partnership has continued to oversee the site in conjunction with the National Park Service, with city staff working alongside federal park rangers.

Currently, the park rangers are provided through the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park, but Jewell said she hopes Congress will approve a budget that includes a line item for the mammoth site.

Over time, Jewell said, she expects the federal government can provide more improvements and fund further excavations and research.

Jewell said the Waco site is a model for federal-local cooperation on national parks.

“From this point forward, Waco will be known for its mammoths, which it should be known for, and for its community stewardship and philanthropy that has been so well demonstrated,” she said.

“I haven’t ever been to an event like this where the community pulled together and recognized that the future is about partnerships. It’s not about the federal government coming in and deciding everything and paying for everything.”

The National Park Service deemed the mammoth site worthy of inclusion in the park system in the mid-2000s, after then-Congressman Edwards secured funding for an NPS study of the site.

Edwards made several attempts to get Congress to name it a national monument but came up short because of political gridlock. Flores, his successor, proposed a bill giving the site a National Park Service designation but without federal funding. That legislation also died.

Last fall, a delegation from the city, Mammoth Foundation and Baylor visited Washington, D.C., to make the case for an executive order under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Jewell and Jarvis of the National Park Service recommended the site to Obama.

By that time, the Mammoth Site was already a well-established educational tourism attraction, with a climate-controlled pavilion for the bones, built to the standards of the National Park Service. Even the sign on Steinbeck Bend Road had space for an NPS arrowhead.

Gloria Young, who led the Waco Mammoth Foundation’s fundraising campaign for the improvements, recalled sitting through an early meeting at which local officials discussed building a “pole barn” over the bones and placing portable restrooms at the site for visitors. Young said she recoiled at that idea and insisted on indoor plumbing.

“And faster than you could say, ‘Port-a-Potty,’ I was elected chairman,” she said.

Community contributions ranged from a seven-figure donation from Paul and Jane Meyer to an $800 donation from students at Hillcrest Professional Development School, who held a “Makeup and Mascara for Mammoths” fundraiser.

Retired Hillcrest Elementary School teacher JoAnne Beaty and one of her now-grownup elementary students represented the school at the ceremony Monday.

Meanwhile, a group of present-day fourth-graders got to meet Jewell and received passes for their families to attend national parks, including the mammoth site.

Under the new “Every Kid in a Park” program, fourth-graders and their families across the nation can attend any national park for free by going online at everykidinapark.gov.

Also attending the ceremony Monday was Paul Barron, who discovered the first bone with a fellow teenager in 1978 and took it to Baylor museum experts for analysis.

“Without me, all of this wouldn’t have been necessary,” he quipped. “I’m overjoyed. My heart could just explode. When I found these bones, my idea of making it big was them getting a whole skeleton to assemble and putting it in their museum. As I saw the interest being piqued, I started to think a little bigger.”

Timeline: The Waco Mammoth National Monument story

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